Northern Ireland’s small firms identify biggest potential boost to prospects for business growth

Ulster Bank business growth enabler Lisa McCaul pictured centre with local entrepreneurs Emma Gribben and Tom Griffiths
Ulster Bank business growth enabler Lisa McCaul pictured centre with local entrepreneurs Emma Gribben and Tom Griffiths

Lower taxes, a better political environment and faster broadband would be among the biggest boosts to the growth prospects of Northern Ireland small businesses, new research suggests.

Ulster Bank’s Boost Index researched the growth performance of local firms with between five and 50 employees across a range of sectors - including food & drink, technology, construction and retail. It involved over 200 telephone interviews with the owners or directors of companies, and was carried out by Perceptive Insight in June 2017.

The research found that small businesses in Northern Ireland are currently in relatively good health, with almost half (46%) having increased sales in the past 12 months, and most of the remainder (44%) having seen sales stay the same.

Publication of the study’s findings coincide with the launch of Ulster Bank’s new Boost initiative to support small business growth through events, access to insight, expertise and networking opportunities.

More than one-fifth of firms (21%) questioned said that they are experiencing moderate growth, with almost one-third (31%) seeing slight growth, and 38% describing their business as stable. Just 1% of respondents said that they were currently experiencing rapid growth.

Exporting appears to be the biggest opportunity for small firms to avail of growth opportunities. Just 7% of those surveyed said that they are currently selling outside of the UK and Ireland. 31% said that they are selling into the Republic of Ireland, and 18% said that they are selling into England, Scotland or Wales.

Competition in the market (78%), the potential impact of Brexit (62%), a perceived lack of political stability in Northern Ireland (61%), and cost pressures (60%) are seen as the major obstacles to growth currently.

Lisa McCaul, business growth enabler at Ulster Bank said: “Ulster Bank Boost has been created to help local businesses in a way that goes beyond traditional business banking. We know that running any business comes with its own everyday challenges and growth plans are sometimes pushed down the priority list.

“This piece of research helps us understand where businesses are in terms of their growth trajectory and the challenges that they perceive to future growth. This will be useful insight as we seek to help small firms grow sustainably.”

“Of particular interest are the insights around exporting. There is often a perception amongst SMEs that exporting is not for them, but the reality is that exporting doesn’t have to be complicated and could simply mean increasing sales a few percent by selling some product overseas online.”