New year; new approach - new business? asks Roger Pollen, Head of FSB in NI

Roger Pollen, Head of FSB in NIRoger Pollen, Head of FSB in NI
Roger Pollen, Head of FSB in NI
The old year is gone; the new one has begun – the stiffest challenges abound but there is opportunity, too.

Few of us could have expected the dramatic turbulence we weathered in 2022 – pandemic; war; inflation; multiple changing of the guard at Westminster; a changing of the guarded at Buckingham Palace; recession; soaring interest rates and energy prices; and a gradual withering of the Stormont Executive as Ministers finally ran out of time and had to vacate their offices.

It was Albert Einstein who coined the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So what can we do differently in 2023 that might put us on a better path; help us not only weather the storms of international events but harness the energy they can deliver; and move our society onto a better course?

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Individually, this may just be the time to think about taking steps to start a business. A new year, a new idea, a new opportunity, a new venture. Some of the greatest ideas and inventions in the world have their origins right here - from the aircraft ejection seat, to the tractor three-point linkage system, and the defibrillator - but many other less high profile businesses will also be started here this year. New businesses are often a response to new challenges, so opportunity abounds – and we are a creative people.

Typically, around one thousand businesses are started in Northern Ireland every month, and anyone reading this article may well just have an idea that has potential to become another successful enterprise. If we want a strong economy that delivers jobs as well as creating wealth that can contribute to good public services, we need to encourage more entrepreneurs to step forward and take the risk. But that’s only part of the equation. The really wise course is to align public policy and action with private enterprise and entrepreneurship, so that we create a resilient, expanding, supportive economy that can withstand whatever challenges 2023 brings.

Collectively, there can be no doubt that we must put in place policies to drive growth with an urgency and determination that is frequently missing in the delivery of our public services. The Federation of Small Businesses lobbied for many years to see improved infrastructure – especially the A5, the A6, the York Street Interchange, and the N/S Electricity Interconnector. As lobbyists, the hardest job is usually building the evidence-base to support the proposition, then engaging with politicians to get them to adopt your ideas as their own. On that basis, it should be ‘job done’ in the case of each of these massively important pieces of infrastructure that would greatly improve our economy - the politicians have listened, agreed, adopted, and championed; yet years later these projects still remain undone.

Similarly, the much-vaunted Bengoa Report languishes on a waiting list even longer than those its adoption would address, seized by our politicians and civil servants as the roadmap to a better NHS yet with the journey still un-started. And as for help with energy bills……the fact that assistance is now promised within an agreed timetable shows that the task, whilst difficult, was not impossible; therefore much greater resource and organisation should have been applied in shortening the delivery time so that the benefits were available when they were most needed.

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Each of these examples serves to demonstrate that even where political agreement has been reached there is still insufficient will, determination or drive to get things done.

This is what must change if we are to avoid the insanity of having the resources available to make ourselves better placed to thrive yet constantly failing to spend them wisely and do what is needed and, instead, suffer the indignity of being at the bottom of so many league tables. To fix the proverbial roof while the sun shines requires proper planning, but it is not rocket science. It needs a work plan in place; materials ordered in advance; weather forecast monitored; labour assembled - and it needs ambition, organisation, drive, and determination; all underpinned with a relentless work ethic.

Instead of looking enviously at other countries that do things better than we, let us raise our sights, demand more of ourselves and our public servants, and be restlessly ambitious as we strive to be the best we can be and make this the very best place to start and grow a business. Happy New Year.

Roger Pollen is head of FSB, NI