The business of peace

Dr Alan Gillespie at a glance:

Age: 48

Education: BA Hons, Economic Geography, Clare College, Cambridge, PhD by thesis ‘Growth centres and regional economic development in Northern Ireland’

First Job: 1976, graduate trainee, international capital markets, Citicorp International Bank

Current Job: Partner, Goldman Sachs and chairman, Northern Ireland Industrial Development Board

Interests: golf, tennis, skiing, St Saviour’s Church Guildford

Last week’s tragic bombing in Omagh was yet another setback in the uncertain steps of the peace process in Northern Ireland. Yet despite this latest atrocity by a minority extremist group, the move towards peace started with the first paramilitary ceasefires in 1994 and boosted by this year’s Good Friday agreement will continue.

The Northern Ireland Industrial Development Board (IDB), set up in 1982 to attract inward investment and stimulate local business, is sticking to its ambitious targets for the next three years. By 2001 it aims to create 18,000 jobs from foreign investment and 5,000 jobs with local companies.

Leading this mission is Belfast-born IDB chairman Dr Alan Gillespie, a Goldman Sachs partner. The son of a Belfast textiles businessman, Gillespie claims strong links with the province.

He is confident that the job creation targets are achievable. ‘Despite recent atrocities, it feels like The Troubles could be a thing of the past. The historic agreement signed on 17 April, the referendum and new assembly all herald a new start,’ he says.

‘Unionists and nationalists are recognising that there are legitimate traditions which must be respected one is not going to extinguish the other. While the peace process is out of our control, the more we can improve the quality of life, and the more people see that creating trouble will put that at risk, the more we will see a calming down of the community.’

Gillespie sees strong parallels between the work of the IDB and that of Goldman Sachs. The IDB is a marketing organisation, promoting Northern Ireland to the business community; it is an appraisal organisation, screening projects and companies for credit decisions; and it has to maintain relationships with businesses in Northern Ireland and reflect their needs. ‘These are all things an investment bank does,’ Gillespie points out.

The IDB co-ordinates all aspects of starting a new business, from site location to manpower training, financial assistance and staff housing.

Gillespie says the figures show year-on-year improvement. ‘Over 7,000 jobs are contracted to be created in this last year a record number. Since the first ceasefire there has been a strong upward trend. There were setbacks as ceasefires broke down, but now we have a new start.’

This autumn, the IDB goes on a three-week roadshow to profile the province to US business leaders, starting in New York and covering 12 cities. It will be launched by Chancellor Gordon Brown, Northern Ireland minister Mo Mowlam and ‘significant’ US political leaders. ‘The signs are that there is a large US audience prepared to listen,’ says Gillespie.

A lot of Northern Ireland’s new jobs will be in back-office operations for banks, building societies and insurance companies. Recent destinations for such businesses, such as Leeds, Bristol and central Scotland, have a shortage of labour. Northern Ireland has a well-educated workforce, good premises, and excellent telecommunications making the ‘stretch of water between Northern Ireland and the UK irrelevant for many modern functions’.

What does this mean for manufacturing industry in the province? ‘We look to invest in sustainable industries rather than traditional businesses that are going nowhere,’ Gillespie says. ‘Certain products can be produced at a lower cost to the same quality elsewhere in the world and we must face up to that. Many traditional providers will not be tomorrow’s providers.’

That does not mean traditional industry is dead. Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard has reinvented itself as a private company making floating oil production and storage platforms. And Shorts, under its Canadian owners, has proved its adaptability despite the loss of its major customer, Fokker.

Encouraging indigenous industries to grow is another important role for the IDB. ‘It is easier to take a company employing 50 people and help it grow to employ 100 people in situ than it is to trawl the world looking for someone to create 50 new jobs. We do both.’

Gillespie is a former grammar school boy who left Northern Ireland at 19 to go to Cambridge. He took up the three-year IDB post at the start of this year. Having worked abroad, he believes he can bring an international perspective to the job. He says he can imagine how others look at Northern Ireland and use this insight to portray it to them in a relevant way.

As a strong pro-European with ‘a can-do mentality’, Gillespie is keen to see Northern Ireland play a strong part in Europe. He wants the IDB to compete with and beat off other UK and European agencies.

‘We have a remarkable opportunity to market Northern Ireland in a way we never have before,’ he says. If achieved, the IDB’s job and investment targets would increase the province’s turnover from £7.7bn to £9.8bn, external sales from £5.8bn to £7.7bn and exports from £2.8bn to £3.8bn by 2001.

‘At the end of it all,’ Gillespie concludes, ‘I hope they say he made the difference.’