How businesses are working Together to Build United Communities

By John Healy, Managing Director, Allstate NI; Board member, Business in the Community NI; Chair, BITC Place Leadership team; The Prince’s Ambassador for Responsible Business in Northern Ireland.

Allstate NI is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Allstate Corporation, one of the largest insurance companies in the US. Here in Northern Ireland we write the software and manage the technology infrastructure that powers the company. We have 2,500 employees across Northern Ireland – 1,500 in Belfast and nearly 1,000 in the Northwest in Derry and Strabane.

The Allstate Mission is simple.

Our brand is represented by the interlinked hands, the good hands. It is our aim to empower customers with protection to help them achieve their hopes and dreams. We provide affordable, simple and connected protection solutions. We seek to create opportunities for our team, economic value for our shareholders and ways to improve communities.

I believe that our mission statement resonates with the purpose of Business in the Community – to inspire and support business to be a force for good.

These are very difficult times – globally, nationally, locally, individually.

We have conflict in Europe, we are emerging from a pandemic and all the havoc that has wreaked, we have raging inflation, Brexit and the fallout from that, especially here as arguments over the Protocol rumble on, we have the collapse of the Assembly and upcoming elections, and for many the cost of living is tightening daily.

I listen to the news, or hear people speak about business and sometimes it seems very abstract – what is business doing about that? What is the response of business? Where is the voice of business?

And the voice of business IS the community voice, because that is where our employees come from – our engineers, our catering staff, our security staff, our accountants, the whole supply chain. We come from the community. Business and the communities in which we live and operate are inextricably linked.

For many, the workplace is the only place where communities come together. Too often, we are educated separately, we live separately, we socialize separately. But in our businesses we come together, problem solve, collaborate and that can be very powerful – a truly dynamic and impactful force for good.

Business has come a long way, and we have developed as a society in so many ways.

When I was growing up here, tourists were few and far between. But now we have a well-developed tourism sector – the new Game of Thrones attraction in Banbridge, cruise ships docking in Belfast, and before the pandemic, 285,000 people from all over the world visited Northern Ireland.

Twenty-five years ago, at the time of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, if someone said to you that some of the world’s biggest television series would be made here, using local talent, you’d have laughed at them. And if you’d said that Belfast would be the number one destination globally for FinTech development projects, people would have been very surprised.

Yet there are local businesses who are members of Business in the Community whose success is founded on ideas and innovation not dreamed of in 1998 – new firms at the heart of the digital revolution. I think of companies like my own company Allstate, or First Derivatives in Newry and Alchemy Technology in Derry.

And there are others with a longer history and a more traditional or manufacturing background – firms which have worked through both the bitter challenges of the Troubles and all the difficulties of an economy recovering from 30 years of conflict.

Firms like Spirit Aerosystems (previous Bombardier), the McAvoy Group and the Henry Group.

On top of local business success, we have global companies that have come to be part of what business can build in Northern Ireland, like The CME Group, Citi and Liberty IT.

Almost 900 international companies have invested here, providing exciting job opportunities. And I, for one, can say with my hand on my heart that among the people of Northern Ireland are some of the most dedicated, passionate and accomplished colleagues that I’ve ever had the pleasure to work alongside.

We’re also bringing talented staff from beyond these shores. They’re coming here and putting down roots – investing their lives and careers in our country’s future. That diversity is making Northern Ireland richer in so many different ways besides economics.

It is fair to say that the world of work has changed enormously in a very short period. Our response to Covid has changed our relationship with our employees totally, how we consume and utilise services.

People want good salaries – of course they do – but that’s not their only aim.

They also want to work in an organisation they feel connected to, whose values they share and where they feel they’re making a meaningful and recognised contribution. They want to make an impact in the communities in which they live.

Many of the companies that I work with, either in the course of my day job, or through the Place Leadership team, are these ‘Champions of Culture Change’. They are leading the way in their people strategies – engaging with communities, trialing innovative, inclusive new ways of working, with people at the very centre, and this results in more resilient businesses.

But how long will they continue to do so and what sort of future lies ahead as businesses continue to face challenges stemming from events beyond their control, such as costs that are piling into their business models and disrupting their ability to survive; that is a question many are seeking to answer.

And, of course, that brings us to the B-word – Brexit….or more specifically the P-word – Protocol, with all the uncertainty which that has left unresolved. And now, of course, we have an Assembly Election coming up, the divisions in our community that sets running, with the ‘they’re winning so we’re losing’ narrative, with the prospect of the political landscape changing yet again, and no guarantee of any resolution.

For the past 5 years, we’ve seen every possible permutation. We’ve been on the brink, we’ve been on a knife edge. There’ve been lights going on and off at the end of tunnels – and still Northern Ireland, our businesses and our communities, waits anxiously for the outcome.

This should be a concern for all of us – business leaders, employers, politicians and anyone with a vested interest in the success of Northern Ireland, its economy and communities.

Whichever way we emerge from the pandemic, or how the Protocol settles, or the shock of war in Europe, the impact of inflation – we will face many new, and as yet unknown, challenges. But there are other long-standing issues that we need to address if we’re to continue to grow our economy and make this place prosperous for all our communities.

There’s the skills deficit that’s affecting all sectors as employers try to recruit the kind of staff they need.

  • How do we meet this demand?
  • How can we make sure that we make the positive impact in our communities that having and holding a job can bring?
  • How do we manage talent?
  • How do we create leadership that can adapt to change?
  • How do we encourage innovation?
  • How can we create new wealth through businesses in our communities?
  • When will we address the underinvestment in the public and private sector, the hospital waiting lists and the challenges of poor educational outcomes that impact so negatively on our communities?
  • And when, after the elections, will we see the re-establishment of a Northern Ireland Executive that will help us address these and many other problems– an Executive that’s open, that listens, is committed and competent to deliver for us and our communities?

It was Voltaire who said – ‘No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking’. That is the power of convening businesses together with community-based organisations that creates the space to think about these issues and work towards solutions.

As the Assembly Election approaches, our politicians – and indeed all of us – should adopt that as a mission statement – sustained thinking to overcome our problems.

Individual businesses cannot tackle the scope and scale of the issues facing people and the planet. My business can’t and won’t work in isolation. The only way we gain and build traction is by working together.

For me, for Allstate, the best way to do this is by working collaboratively, and Business in the Community provides a solid network to do just that. I get to observe, firsthand, the fantastic work of businesses operating in the community, and making an impact in their communities – the valuable role business plays in the interests of its employees, its customers and of the whole community.

And I know that will become even more important over the next 12 months as we deal with the challenges ahead of us.

BITC is focused on supporting its members – who are true ‘Champions of Culture Change’. We have some outstanding examples of businesses building united communities here in Northern Ireland, and I want to congratulate them all. They are truly the way of the future to build united communities.