30 Minutes with Colm McKenna

26th July 2023
Marek Dobrowolski
Partner & Head of Practice

Colm McKenna was appointed Interim Chair of Invest Northern Ireland in February of this year. He sat down with our Head of Place and Regeneration Executive Search Practice, Marek Dobrowolski to discuss his priorities coming into the role and future plans for Invest Northern Ireland.

Colm, you were appointed Interim Chair of Invest Northern Ireland in February of this year. In coming into the role, what were your priorities?

I had previously served on the Board of the Department for the Economy, so I was well aware of the Lyons Review and the work that had been done with it. It was clear to me that we needed to implement the review findings and work with the team in Invest Northern Ireland.

I was also aware that there had been some difficulties in terms of relationships, which are very clearly highlighted both in the Lyons review and the Board Effectiveness Review that happened on a contemporary basis. The relationships weren’t exactly what they should have been and there was some misunderstanding as to the different roles played by the Chair of the Board and the Executive Leadership Team, however, for me, it is pretty clear – the Chairman is there to run the Board, and the Board are there to set the strategy and keep an eye on the governance. The Executive Leadership Team, through the  Chief Executive, are there to run the business.

 In short – I run the Board, and the Chief Executive runs the business – someone I worked with many years ago, Ken Gerald from the NHS, former Finance Director and Chief Executive, used a great phrase that you need eye-watering role clarity between Non-Executive and Executive Director. With this in mind, I wanted to get back to that and to work with the Department for the Economy to develop task and finish groups that would address all of the recommendations made by Sir Michael in the review and to create and Invest NI fit for the future.

I wanted to move at a particular pace, Sir Michael had set out a fairly exacting pace during which he wanted things to be delivered, however, I think we can deliver it much more quickly! To do this, I needed to make clear to all concerned that the Board is in charge and the Board is here to run Invest NI – we set the strategy, we ensure that the correct corporate governance is in place and we have made it very clear to the Chief Executive and the Executive Leadership Team what our expectations are. I did this at my first Board meeting, supported by the Permanent Secretary of the Department for the Economy, who came along to the Board meeting and spoke a little bit about the 10X Strategy and what was expected by the Department. So, I think that everybody in the room saw that the Department for the Economy and the Invest NI Board were on the same page.

The next step was achieved by the end of March. It was a full sign-off by the Board of Invest NI, the Executive Leadership Team and the Department for the Economy of all of the recommendations from Sir Michael Lyon’s review and then the establishment of a series of about 15 or 16 tasks and finish groups, which would actually take all of the individual recommendations and use a ‘Double Diamond’ methodology. We’re working our way through that, with exacting timescales, we had to sign off on the definition of the ‘Problem Statement’ by the beginning of June and we hope to sign off on the ‘Solution Statements’  later in the summer. For those who don’t understand Double Diamond methodology, your Problem Statement is where we are today and your Solution Statement is the envisioned future, and then the bit in the middle, the action plan, fills in the gaps.

Looking back on the last four months since you’ve been in post, what are the reflections that you have in terms of the way that Invest NI is developing?

It’s developing very well, it seems that there’s an acceptance that we need to change. Bear in mind, Invest NI has actually delivered extremely well for Northern Ireland in terms of inward investment and getting the right jobs growth.

We didn’t always do that, and if you go back in history, there were a lot of lower-level jobs coming here, but we’ve been very successful over the past 15 to 20 years since Invest NI has existed in a couple of really important areas, including Fintech, Cybersecurity and Creative Industries, where we’ve done tremendous work and developed a strong reputation. However, the economy has moved on and we need to change to reflect this.

We might not have been the quickest to alter how we do things; the one thing that I think we could have done more on was around driving productivity effectively, making ours a much more successful economy – but we get that and we are working on improving. I also think we have not done as much as we should have done in the sub-regional economy –  criticism has been levied by people outside of the Greater Belfast area that it’s really ‘Invest Belfast’ as opposed to Invest NI, and they may feel that haven’t done what we should have done in other parts of the economy. We accept that and understand that’s a fair criticism, however, I think on my watch, you’ll find a big change in that.

We’ve had a difficult time with COVID-19 and other factors, as have most of the economy, but Invest NI did a super job during covid – the Department for the Economy and Invest NI delivered tremendous support for the business community in the same way as other government departments in the rest of the UK did, but here, Invest NI took the lead.

However, that period did make us a little bit anonymous – we were either at home on our Teams calls, or within headquarters in Belfast. We have been able to change this recently, we’ve already been out to the North West and in addition to holding our Board meeting there, we’ve met with the local business representatives and political representatives of the region. Moving forward, we plan not to hold two consecutive meeting Board meetings in headquarters, bringing every other meeting out into the regions to communicate with the business community all across Northern Ireland.

We’re on a journey and I think everybody in the organisation accepts that we need to be on it. We’re going to change how we do things at Invest NI and because no one organisation can do it all on its own, part of the change will involve creating an economic development ecosystem and working in a way we never really have done in the past. We need to be working with many other partners and providers, and it is going to be a really exciting and transformative journey.

As you said, no one organisation can deliver this. How are the business community and the wider public sector partners reacting to the changes and planned changes?

I think they’re reacting extremely positively – in the last week I’ve met both with the Vice Chancellor at Queen’s University and the Provost of Ulster University. We’ve worked very closely with our further education colleges, and we work with an organisation known as the Business Alliance, which brings together the key business groups in Northern Ireland, for example, the IOD and the CBI, the Chambers of Commerce, the Centre for Competitiveness, the Federation for Small Businesses. They are really pleased to see what’s happening, particularly the ones that work in regions. We also work very closely with local government, we have 11 local councils across Northern Ireland and I’m already speaking to the Chief Executives of those and the elected representatives.

While we haven’t got an Assembly and an Executive up and running at present, we do have 11 councils and we just had council elections quite recently. I think from that point of view, the changes are being widely accepted and people are really keen to partner with Invest NI and move forward. We’re very keen to do that in a way that I think we’ve never really done before.

The Lyons Review is a pivotal moment for Invest Northern Ireland. It’s quite an exciting moment in terms of the organisation wants to react to the review and shape itself moving forward, in an economy that’s changing dynamically. Looking ahead, what does Invest NI need to become to be an effective investment promotion agency?

I think we probably were criticised in the past – we were considered as two things – one that I‘ve heard was that we were a glorified job agency, bringing in jobs, some of which were at the right level, many of which were not. The other one that I’ve heard was that people referred to Invest NI as an ATM for the business community.

Neither of those descriptions was particularly fair, but they were perceived out there within the business community, so we need to change that. I think Invest NI needs to become a leader in collaboration – to become the conductor of the orchestra in many respects – we need to collaborate with our colleagues in InterTrade Ireland on the cross-border activity, we need to work with Enterprise Northern Ireland, which works with the smaller business and entrepreneur activity, as well as working with the FE colleges and universities on the skills piece. We need to be sitting down with them and explaining how the economy is going to develop and outlining the skill sets that we’re going to need for the future.

For example, if we look at something like green growth – we have a very strong green strategy developing in Northern Ireland, which takes cross-government work. We work closely with the Department for Environment and Agriculture in Northern Ireland on this. There are huge opportunities out there in green manufacturing, something we don’t do particularly well, so we should  work with the skills providers to identify the skill sets are needed for this type of industry, and to ensure they available from the universities and the FE colleges.

It’s only by us sitting down and collaborating with all of those education providers and with local government that we can change this. Sir Michael Lyons was quite critical of our failure to get into the sub-regional economy – a lot of the economic drivers within our local government areas are driven by the local councils and their economic development teams. I’m delighted to say that the regional teams at Invest NI are really good, really focused on working with local government and are really starting to make a difference in those local economies.

You have already alluded to the strength that Invest Northern Ireland has around cyber, fintech, and creative industries. There are lots of risks, as well as opportunities for the economy in Northern Ireland because of Brexit, because of the legacy of the pandemic as well as global shifting economic trends. How do you think Invest NI evolve as an agency to capture those opportunities and mitigate some of the risks?

I think that we need to be much better at communication, for example, our Head of International and Skills, Steve Harper, opened our Milan Office recently and he had brought a group of distillers with him. Steve gave a few interviews to the Italian business press when he was out in Milan and they’d never heard of the Windsor Framework or the Northern Ireland Protocol – they couldn’t believe the opportunities that Northern Ireland presents for manufacturing and export with our completely unfettered access to the EU market and the UK market – a benefit that nobody else has!

In the past, for political reasons, we had difficulty promoting these opportunities, but it’s now UK government policy; in fact, the Permanent Secretary at the Department for the Economy has written to me outlining this policy position, so we need to start communicating this tremendous opportunity effectively.

I also think we need to get over our previous failures to collaborate; we need to work with all of the business community. One of the criticisms in the Lyons Review is that we’re maybe too close to the big business and not close enough to the rest of the business community. The reality is Northern Ireland is no different than any other economy, the vast majority of businesses are small and medium-sized enterprises.

We have FinTech, Cyber, Creative Industries and so forth here; these are relatively new and hugely successful. However, we also have some excellent existing industries in Northern Ireland, for example, the agri-food industry is hugely successful and a massive part of the Northern Ireland economy. It is also hugely innovative, which we need to build on because they have a wonderful opportunity. We need to feed the nation, and I think Northern Ireland has been great at feeding many nations for some time, not just here, but certainly in the UK and the other parts of Europe and the world.

We have some fantastic success stories in advanced manufacturing – Wrightbus is probably one that’s pretty well known as an Invest NI customer in Ballymena, and they’re developing hydrogen-powered buses, which feed into the zero emissions and the green economy. There’s lots of opportunities, but we need to do much more in partnering with the people and the industry bodies behind it.

You said it right at the start, Colm, in terms of the Windsor Framework. I know, talking to other kinds of investment agencies across the UK, what a huge opportunity that does present for Northern Ireland. So, how do you think Invest NI, as Northern Ireland’s representative agency, can leverage that unique opportunity that the Windsor Framework brings?

Well, firstly, the opportunities for Northern Ireland associated with the UK leaving the EU are quite political, as you’ll appreciate, so it was quite difficult to talk about them in the past;  I also think the original Protocol that was agreed by Boris Johnson and the government at the time of the exit was far from perfect, there’s no question about that. And while I’m not saying the Windsor Framework is absolutely perfect, I think that it does address the vast majority of the issues.

There’s still some political negativity in the media here at times around that, and suggestions of attempts to reopen the negotiations, but my guess is it’s probably as good as it’s going to be. From an EU perspective, I think the EU sees it as a done deal.

The Windsor Framework creates a tremendous opportunity for us; we just haven’t been as good as we might have been, but now that it’s become UK government policy and signed off by the Prime Minister, we need to get out and tell people.

And I’ll give you an example – we’re talking to a FinTech organisation at the minute, they had decided they were going to open a Dublin office and a London office to make sure they get access to the European and the UK markets, they’ve already got their licence from the Central Bank of Ireland and are in discussions with the FCA for the UK. However, now that they understand the opportunities that exist in Northern Ireland they’ve decided that it would actually be better just to open a Belfast office to cover Ireland and the UK – this is the sort of message that is starting to get across.

Additionally, I attended an InterTrade Ireland Conference in Belfast about a month ago and one of the speakers was David McWilliams, who is an economist from Dublin, who is considered to be among the top 10 most influential economists in the world. David is a professor at Trinity College and he was actually advocating that Republic of Ireland firms should give real consideration to relocating to the north of Ireland because our housing stock is much more affordable, the workforce is more available, the costs are significantly lower, and you have unfettered access. Okay, in the Republic of Ireland, you have unfettered access to the European Union but not to the UK, while in Northern Ireland you’ve unfettered access to both markets.

So, I think having people like David making that case for us and us getting out into global markets will enable us to maximise this opportunity; we can ask potential investors: “If you’re thinking of getting into the European market, but you’d quite like to do something in the UK too, why set up two offices? Why not just set up one in Northern Ireland-  the only place on this planet that gives unfettered access to both markets?”

And once we get that message across to international investors, I think this place will be absolutely booming!

It’s an incredibly competitive world when you’re looking for globally mobile investment, as we’ve talked about, incredible technologies but existing businesses as well. So what does Northern Ireland need to do to be competitive and then how does Invest NI continue to be a competitive agency to help the Northern Irish economy?

We are competitive, and we need to get that message out there – this is why working with the universities is really important because we need to work with the universities who need to be bought into this messaging.

We have developed the 10X Economic Strategy; this strategy is really important because it’s innovative, it’s new, it majors on productivity, innovation, and I think we need to get all of those things together.

The big opportunity I think we have in Northern Ireland is the ‘on-tap resource’ – we have a greater level of economic inactivity in Northern Ireland than in other parts of the UK and we have a very low unemployment rate like other parts of the UK (at about 2.4 per cent), so we are below the definition of full employment. However, we’re at about 26 per cent of economic inactivity, so there’s a huge available workforce out there and we need to create the opportunities for those people.

I think Invest NI can start to work on addressing this, and indeed, on our visit up to the North West recently, I brought both the Permanent Secretary from the Department for the Economy and the Permanent Secretary from the Department for Communities with me to talk about economic connectivity and some of the things we might be able to do there to start to tackle economic inactivity.

That’s really around creating opportunities in different economies that we haven’t really tapped into before, trying to get much more assistance into entrepreneurship and so forth. I think there’s an awful lot that we can do to start to drive these levels down – if we were to drive down our economic inactivity level, and Invest NI can’t do this on their own, but we can play a role in it – but if we were to drive that down to the UK average, that would probably create an additional 4 per cent (an additional maybe 30,000 or 40,000 employees) to come into the marketplace in Northern Ireland. And I think that these employees will be snapped by job opportunities arising from the Windsor Framework benefits.

I’m also really excited about the opportunities around green manufacturing and we’re talking to several investment funds over in the US who are particularly interested in people who ‘make things’; I believe that if we can get into something around green manufacturing, around making things that tie in with every government’s drive to net zero, it will create tremendous opportunities.

One of the advantages Northern Ireland has always had is it’s small enough to do things cohesively. And I think it’s not that difficult for somebody in my position, or the Chief Executive or the Board to engage with the university sector, to engage with the business community, to engage with all of the players and to create that economic development ecosystem, and then through our international sales team (we’re represented in 50 countries around the world) we can get that message out there much more aggressively.

We are about to work with you on the appointment of the next Chief Executive at Invest Northern Ireland. So what are you looking for and what will you need them to do?

I’m looking for somebody who understands economic development, but most of all is a leader and a collaborator.

I think that the Invest NI of the future is going to be different, we’re not just the FDI agency. In the Irish Republic, for example, they split the role of FDI and Economic Development, but we’re doing both, and that is understandable because we’re a smaller economy. We are not expecting the next Chief Executive to be an absolute leader in FDI and an absolute leader in economic development, but he or she needs to be an absolute leader.

And, they need to be a fantastic collaborator; we will need somebody who actually delivers through others, which we have some great examples of. We’re doing some great work in partnership with some of the local government representatives here in the City Deals, mostly funded by Whitehall, central government, and some funding from local government. Invest NI will be the investment decision makers in many of these schemes, while working very closely with the councils, the university sector and the business community to deliver them.

So, collaboration, leadership, and a very sound understanding of the principles of economic development and inward investment are what we are most importantly looking for.

In the Republic of Ireland, part of this role is slightly split, as it is in other jurisdictions and locations. However, there seems to be a growing move towards those FDI investment promotion agencies becoming more focused on a proper economic development. Just from your point of view, is there a perfect model?

I don’t think there’s any right answer. I think that the reality is that it’s about bringing in business and growing the economy. The Republic of Ireland has been very successful in bringing in the Metas and the Intels, as well as some of the big pharma names. For me, I don’t think the global giants necessarily bring supply chains with them. And that’s something that we will have to start to look at as a potential growth lever.

I would be really interested in looking at the next tier of inward investment. So if you bring in inward investment, and we’ve got some experience of this from the US, who don’t have that big global supply chain, that actually adds an awful lot more value. So if we can bring them in and help those organisations to grow, but to create a supply chain within Northern Ireland, that actually adds a lot more value because it develops the economy around them. And I think if you bring the old saying with coinage, particularly money is made round to go around, into an economic perspective, if we can bring in that second tier FDI and develop that economy, you develop much more than you do with the big ticket FDI.

As the chair of Invest Northern Ireland, you are one of the leading salespeople for Northern Ireland. So in such a competitive world, if you were a global firm looking to invest, why Northern Ireland?

Why Northern Ireland? Well, I think it is such a great place to work, to live, despite all of our history; we signed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and while it’s not perfect, compared to what it was, Northern Ireland iis a great place to live now. As Jim Aiken, one of our great entertainment promoters used to say, “You can play sport here 330 days a year!” It’s not a perfect climate, but it’s a decent climate, without the extremes.

We have a very highly educated workforce. We have a coming together now on the economic development side of all of the relevant agencies. We have a 10X Strategy, which is really a fantastic forward-looking strategy, built on inclusivity, innovation and sustainability, which are really important principles to build the economy and to guide us going forward.

We have all the players aligned. We have the business community working very closely with the Department for the Economy, Invest NI, the university sector, the FE colleges and the local government.

I think we are less than two million people, there are cities in England that are significantly bigger, but we have everybody working for the common good of Northern Ireland. We have a can-do attitude and many of the inward investment companies that have come to Northern Ireland over the years have recognised that this – if we can make it work, we will make it work!

I think going forward, we will work much more closely with our skills providers – so, if you have an idea for the future, we will make sure that we have we work with our universities and further education colleges to make sure that we have the skills that you need here.

Marek Dobrowolski leads our Place Practice nationally. His focus is on Regeneration, Economic Development & Infrastructure appointments in Local Government and its associated agencies.

Categories: Regeneration Place & Social Housing