IN the last 20 years the Northern Ireland business community has grown in numbers, learned to dress well and become younger. While older establishment figures still rattle around the members’ lounges of the CBI and IoD, the new suits are dominating.
The ICT sector, for example, employs more than 18,000 in greater Belfast, marketing
and design agencies are matching the quality of top Dublin and European operators and the agri-food sector has gone all street-foodie and cool.
Is there room in this brave new world for any of the experienced seniors? Noel Brady’s record goes back to the 1980s which makes him one of the establishment.
But Brady has approached the challenges with a David Bowie style strategy of continual change and adjustment.
The former CEO of SX3 is now one of the top business advisers and fixers in the north. His agency, NB1, offers potential newcomers, investors and expansionists to Northern Ireland markets the kind of service only an insider with the deepest roots could provide. He says these roots go back 37 years in public and private sectors.
“When I was a civil servant and Margaret Thatcher was in charge, a policy of market testing was introduced to identify areas of government which could be privatised,”
he recollects over a light and lunch in Ox. (We are surrounded by some of those earlier establishment figures and Noel nods graciously to them all. They all know him.)
“One of the first functions to be market tested was the area I was in, computing, in the then Department of Finance ,” he says. “The Central Information Systems Division became the first to be outsourced in 1991 and I went with it.” The division became part of the CFM Group, then ICL and now operates under the Fujitsu brand.
Brady appears flamboyant with an expensive brush top hair cut, a pair of red-framed spectacles and chunky gold jewellery.
His manners are impeccable, there is no hint of narcissism and the clarity of his thinking is unparalleled.
“When companies approach me with a view to entering Northern Ireland I analyse them back to the bare metal. Once I understand their offer, I work out a network engagement plan to begin plugging them into Northern Ireland’s fabric. There are many layers of this fabric. My job is to connect them to those networks,” he says.
There’s something of the doctor’s bedside manner about him. His ability to listen and assimilate complex information is well known. His experience crossing from public to private sector also informs him of his current economic views.
“Market testing worked 25 years ago so why would it not work now? This is not about taking jobs out of the public sector because 20,000 posts are already earmarked.
It’s about doing what we said we’d do which is create more private sector jobs to replace the shrinking public sector.”
If Finance Minister Simon Hamilton wants to rebalance the public and private sectors here, Noel Brady’s advice is to devise a new privatisation strategy, reintroduce
market testing and get on with it.
Despite the challenges our economy faces, his outlook is cautiously positive. “There is a distinct sense that we are heading in the right direction. But I never underestimate how fragile our collective confidence can be.”