US chief of Invest NI is driven by desire to makes things better back home

After 15 years working in New York to bring investment to Northern Ireland, Andrea Haughian stepped up to the top job with Invest Northern Ireland last November allowing the Lurgan, Co. Armagh native to continue in her mission to encourage international companies to set up in shop in the North of Ireland.

When Haughian, whose official title is Executive Vice President – Head of Americas for Invest Northern Ireland, spoke to the Irish Echo recently, her enthusiasm for her work shone through.

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Like many before and after her, Haughian, who laughingly says of Lurgan, “I like to think of it as the center of the universe,” came to New York for what she thought would be a two year term. “15 years later, I’m still here,” she said. “I’m not quite sure how that happens.”

With the St Andrew’s Agreement and the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the formation of a new Northern Ireland Executive, Haughain came on board as Vice President of Business Development of Invest Northern Ireland in 2007, a fraught but optimistic moment in the history of the peace process.

“It was almost like a new start for the region, really. And one of the things that we were planning to do in 2008 was a big investment conference focused on the U.S.”

All the major players of the era were on hand for the US-NI Investment Conference. From Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley, to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen, with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg leading the list of power brokers to travel to Belfast to see what was on offer.

A Queen’s University Belfast graduate, Haughian recalls: “I arrived over here with some other folks in 2007. Initially, basically just to focus on building up a network, setting up a presence in the U.S. so that we could get folks to come back to that investment conference to really kick things off properly. And we went on from there.”

And while the political situation in the North can still be somewhat tumultuous, Invest Northern Ireland relies on its track record of success to, “keep motoring ahead, regardless, and keep very focused on the mission, and in many ways drown out any noise that would be distracting, whether it’s political, or otherwise.”

Since the turbulence of the Brexit vote in 2016, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly has been in an on-again-off-again mode. The institutions collapsed in 2017 after a renewable heating scandal before being resuscitated in January 2020. However, two short years later, with Sinn Féin returned in the May ’22 elections in pole position, the DUP refused to enter government. That state of paralysis in government has continued since.

But for Haughian and Invest NI, the strength of the government is just one element for a company to consider when looking to set up shop in a particular location. 

“There’s a whole plethora of other reasons that they do,” Haughian told the Irish Echo. “There are now 1,200 international companies based in Northern Ireland. When potential investors are looking up the region, they have plenty of peers to go and speak to with regard to whether Northern Ireland is a good location

“So they’re not just listening to people like me. They’re actually hearing from companies that have been there for a long time and see the pros and cons to being in Northern Ireland. So I think between ourselves and the current investors, we provide all of the reassurance that potential new entrants need.”

International businesses employ over 100,000 people in NI, of which nearly 30,000 are employed by US owned businesses – including major U.S. multinationals like Insider Inc, Microsoft, Allstate, Aflac and Seagate. Spirit AeroSystems acquired Bombardier in 2020, making US companies the top five foreign investors into Northern Ireland.

The other half of Invest NI’s brief, trade, is also going well, with trade to and from the United States robust. Information provided by UK Regional Trade in Goods Statistics rates the United States as the second-largest single export market, behind only the Republic of Ireland, as well as the number one export market outside of Britain and the EU.

Goods also flow the opposite way. The US is #3 on the list of the top five countries that import into Northern Ireland. This accounts for £0.5bn worth of business and showcases the importance of the trading relationship on both ends.

Again, according to UK Regional Trade in Goods Statistics, the United States is third on the list of countries that import into Northern Ireland, accounting for £0.5bn worth of business.

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And while the numbers look good, they only tell part of the story. 

“When I graduated from Queens,” Haughian explains, “it was the middle of the 90s, and quite frankly, there was very little opportunity in terms of jobs, and now when young people come out of university, there’s a plethora of international companies and fantastic homegrown companies as well, for them to start and grow their career. So it’s a very, very, very, very different Northern Ireland than the one that I experienced when I graduated. To play a part in that in terms of making things better, it genuinely is what drives me and quite frankly, is why I’ve been here for 15 years.”