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Agility in the face of north-south economic challenges

Margaret Hearty, InterTradeIreland Chief Executive, discusses how the north-south trade and business development body has reviewed its offering and structure, to ensure it meets the needs of businesses trading cross-border in a rapidly changing economic landscape.

Margaret Hearty, Chief Executive, explains that InterTradeIreland, a key economic development agency, prides itself on being an agile organisation, supporting businesses right across the island to take advantage of cross-border trade and development opportunities. It is this emphasis on agility that has allowed the body to respond swiftly to changes in the economic climate and the changing needs of businesses right across the island, namely Brexit and Covid-19.

InterTradeIreland delivers cross-border trade and business development initiatives that align with the economic and enterprise policy priorities of both governments, which include growing cross-border exports and investment in innovation that drives productivity, jobs, and growth. Since inception, the body has supported over 50,000 businesses resulting in £1.3 billion in business development value and over 19,500 jobs.

An agile organisation

In order to remain a nimble and reactive organisation that aligns and adds value to policy priorities in Ireland and Northern Ireland, a realignment of its structure is timely.

Hearty, who took up post as Chief Executive in April 2021, having previously worked in a number of key roles in the organisation, sets out the context of the realignment: “A vital part of my role as CEO at InterTradeIreland, is to ensure that the organisation remains agile in our response to market trends and challenges, and that we continue to provide the right supports, funding and advice to SMEs across the island of Ireland.

“A vital part of my role as CEO at InterTradeIreland, is to ensure that the organisation remains agile in our response to market trends and challenges, and that we continue to provide the right supports, funding and advice to SMEs across the island of Ireland.”

“As demand for our services continues to grow, we as an organisation also need to take the advice we give to businesses of embracing digitilisation to meet demand. For the body, this means delivering more online services whilst maintaining a quality and relational service. In 2021, we directly supported over 4,000 businesses, generating an additional £110 million of business development value and supported the creation and protection of almost 19,000 jobs, with ambitions to grow these numbers further.”

Resilience through cross-border trade

The Chief Executive praises the resilience shown by businesses in the testing economic climate and recognises that InterTradeIreland must continue to adapt and promote its supports, as resilience is being further tested by additional challenges such as rising costs and skills shortages.

The desire to increase the number of first time exporters is an ambition shared by both governments and cross-border exporting presents a logical and natural first export step for many SMEs.

InterTradeIreland has a significant role to play here. Data from InterTradeIreland’s latest All-Island Business Monitor survey of businesses owners, reveals that in Q2 of this year businesses that export cross-border are outperforming businesses that do not, with 41 per cent enjoying moderate or rapid growth/expansion. This is almost double compared to non cross-border traders (21 per cent).

At the beginning of 2022, Irish import trade with Northern Ireland had risen by 23 per cent when compared to the same timeframe the previous year, while Irish exports to Northern Ireland were up 42 per cent for the same period.

“The evolving cross-border market on the island of Ireland offers significant advantages to businesses, providing them with access to new market opportunities without the barriers of language or geography,” explains Hearty.

“It can also provide SMEs with a wider network of collaborative partners, allowing them to innovate more quickly and tap into industry knowledge that would not easily be available to them.”

The Chief Executive explains that for first time exporters, InterTradeIreland understands how daunting a new export market might seem but emphasises that through its dedicated Trade team, businesses can benefit from an expert team who will provide the right supports, funding and advice to help them unlock their potential for trade on the island of Ireland.

“Our dedicated Trade team headed up by our recently appointed Director of Trade, Colin McCabrey, are on hand to help businesses connect with the right trading opportunities and ensure they get the right support to help them achieve faster and more sustainable growth.”

Facilitating innovation through collaboration

Collaborative partnerships on the island of Ireland that bring together entrepreneurs, academics, policy makers, corporates and third sector participants continue to grow in importance and are an important feature of trade and enterprise development. Such collaborations are important to turning common challenges into opportunities in areas such as transitioning to a low-carbon economy, the bioeconomy, cybersecurity and fintech. “We will proactively help businesses to take advantage of the opportunity to collaborate for growth,” says Hearty.

Hearty explains that InterTradeIreland’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship team and suite of programmes, headed up by Director, Alison Currie, will be central to helping businesses drive innovative thinking and actions to exploit market opportunities. “Our innovation and entrepreneurship programmes have been developed to allow businesses to tap into a network of best-in-class collaborative partners and business advisors across the island of Ireland.

(L-R): Colin McCabrey, Director of Trade; Alison Currie, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship; Margaret Hearty, Chief Executive Officer; Martin Robinson, Director of Strategy; Martin Agnew, Director of Corporate Services.

“Our innovation and entrepreneurship programmes have been developed to allow businesses to tap into a network of best-in-class collaborative partners and business advisors across the island of Ireland.”

“Building innovation capabilities in businesses is one of our key pillars and we do this in a myriad of different ways, including our Innovation Boost programme which supports product development and innovation by linking academics and SMEs across the island.”

Highlighting the value of clustering businesses to support innovation and growth, such as has been achieved through the now 91-company Fintech Corridor, alongside academic institutions and development agencies, Hearty says: “The cross-border market provides enormous potential for trade and innovation, including the ability to forge new collaborations with like-minded partners and to establish new, profitable trading relationships with new suppliers.”

The body actively engages with partners and stakeholders to ensure that cross-border clustering initiatives mirrors best practices found in the Nordic region. Hearty explains that such partnerships and stakeholder engagement is fundamental to the future direction of the organisation.

Future direction of InterTradeIreland

Turning to the future and the underpinning ambition to increase the number of exporting companies in both jurisdictions, Hearty states: “InterTradeIreland will remain proactive and responsive to the growing needs of businesses, as they begin to tackle the impact of rising costs and labour challenges and continue to address carbon reduction targets through their own operations. We will continue to support economic recovery and deliver the right solutions and advice to allow SMEs to benefit from the opportunities provided by cross-border trade, innovation and collaboration.

“A significant focus of our next corporate plan will be looking at how we can further empower businesses to take advantage of these opportunities and to overcome any perceived barriers of trading across the island of Ireland.”

Currently in the last year of its corporate plan, Hearty says that the realignment, incorporating a new dedicated Trade team, led by Colin McCabrey, a new Innovation and Entrepreneurship team led by Alison Currie and the expansion of the Strategy team now under Martin Robinson’s leadership, alongside the organisation’s Corporate Services team headed up by Martin Agnew, will form a critical part of its forthcoming strategy for 2023-2025.

Additionally, InterTradeIreland’s in-house Research team and strong industry-led board will continue to provide evidence on market trends and opportunities to inform businesses and policy makers and in turn the direction of the organisation.

InterTradeIreland’s Chief Executive explains that the future strategy will be business-led and business-focused: “At InterTradeIreland, we understand that a rapidly changing economic landscape needs fresh thinking, collaborative approaches and innovative solutions, fuelled by best in-class market intelligence.”

Through its longstanding All-Island Business Monitor, as well as its network of research, collaboration, stakeholder engagement and case studies, InterTradeIreland remains on the pulse of businesses and positions itself to provide valuable intelligence on all-island opportunities, regulation and market trends to both policy makers and businesses.

Concluding, Hearty explains: “We pride ourselves on being a flexible organisation that acts on business needs. We have demonstrated this by rapidly responding to the challenges that arose during Brexit and Covid-19 and more recently, we introduced a new support – the Business Solutions Voucher – to help businesses manage the current pressures of supply chain shortages, rising inflation and other costs. I believe that the changes we have made internally position the organisation to continue acting in a timely manner to the ever-changing challenges and opportunities ahead.”

Profile: Margaret Hearty

Appointed CEO of InterTradeIreland in April 2021, Margaret Hearty, a business and marketing graduate and holder of an MBA, has worked in the organisation since its inception. In which time, she has played a number of key roles and has, for over two decades worked with entrepreneurs, small and medium sized enterprises and start-ups. Margaret is passionate about helping businesses to grow and develop; through her extensive experience in designing innovative supports and solutions, she continues to lead an expert team who support thousands of businesses across the island to trade, innovate and collaborate.

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