Columnists give their reviews of the year

THE last 12 months have been incredibly turbulent in the business world.

James Ramsbotham

THE last 12 months have been incredibly turbulent in the business world. We have done our best to chronicle the changes in the landscape and now we have called upon some of our regular correspondents to look back on the highs and lows of 2011

James Ramsbotham is chief executive of the North East Chamber of Commerce

BUSINESSES could be forgiven for feeling that we, along with many regions in the UK, have had another challenging year. In many ways that’s true.

Sadly 2011 claimed some notable casualties, most recently Rio Tinto Alcan. However, I feel that overall the level of success has outweighed the difficulties we have faced.

We have an enormously successful business community that has achieved so much this year.

This is perhaps best demonstrated by the group of seven businesses I had the privilege of leading to the British Chambers of Commerce’s Chamber Awards in London last month.

They are a clear indication that our region holds an incredible depth of talent which ensures that we continue to contribute genuine wealth and job creation to UK plc.

It was a fantastic in March to hear that steel production would be returning to Teesside, along with 1,500 jobs, thanks to SSI.

Days later, news arrived that Hitachi had secured the £4.5bn Intercity Rail Programme at Newton Aycliffe, creating hundreds of jobs at the facility and more than 9,000 in the supply chain.

We have also responded to the challenge of creating apprenticeships. The campaign run in conjunction with The Journal was a great catalyst for our business community to create opportunities for the region’s youngsters.

Kevin Rowan is general secretary of TUC Northern

MANY people will be reflecting on what a tough year it has been. Many workers have lost their jobs, many more remain uncertain and pay freezes and pay cuts ensured families have felt squeezed.

With further public sector job losses predicted and little sign of private sector growth, the year ahead promises deeper and more difficult challenges.

Young people have suffered especially in the labour market and it is local government that is stepping in to provide support through creative apprenticeship programmes and employment support.

The North East has some of the best and most imaginative local authorities in the UK.

In the face of yet more cuts and the economic and social neglect of central Government, it is imperative that in 2012 we recognise, appreciate and preserve how important these organisations are to maintaining the strong sense of community that defines the North East.

Fiona Cruickshank is a Northumberland pharmaceutical entrepreneur who runs SCM Pharma and is board member of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership

IT HAS been a year of consolidation and reviewing strategy both within our business and at a regional level. Firms like ours have needed to get to grips with the changing business environment and plan for the next three to five years.

Those that have survived the turbulent last few years have tightened their belts, played to their strengths and invested for the future in terms of business structure. As North East businesses, we must help ourselves more and take action rather than wait for landscape to change.

Sarah Green is regional director of CBI North East

FOR automotive and offshore businesses, 2011 was a great year. Unfortunately this is not the story across all sectors. For many businesses in construction and consumer retail the economic conditions continue to be very challenging.

North East exporters have continued to develop their international footprints, reinforcing the region's position as the only English one with a positive balance of trade.

Congrat- ulations to businesses such as Kilfrost, SMD, Multichem and SCM Pharma who have demonstrated significant growth and ambition for the future. CBI research in 2011 showed that these medium-sized businesses have the greatest potential for growth.

Finally, 2011 has been a strong year for the visitor economy and cultural economy. The Turner Prize helped ensure October had the highest ever hotel occupancy in Newcastle.

Vinay Bedi is divisional director of the Newcastle office of investment manager Brewin Dolphin

OUR biggest wish is that 2011 is remembered as the watershed year – when the world’s financial problems were at their worst and the major economies were at their lowest ebb.

We hope it will be remembered as the year when finally the American economy bottomed and began a long, slow road to recovery, dragging with it the economies of the developed world and encouraging the developing world’s strong growth records to be maintained.

We hope it will mark the point in history when the EU finally discovered that playing “happy families” will only work in reality with a strong father figure and strong leadership (even if the prodigal son, Britain, decided to leave home).

But most of all we hope that among all this turmoil and uncertainty the world’s stockmarkets were right to remain stoic in the face of huge uncertainty.

Greggs chief executive Ken McMeikan

Ken McMeikan is chief executive of Newcastle-based retail bakery chain Greggs and chair of CBI North East

WHATEVER way you look at 2011, it’s been an extraordinarily difficult year with inflation running at 5%, a 17-year high in unemployment, consumers with less disposable income as household budgets are squeezed by rising fuel, food and energy costs, more companies going into administration and a number of high-profile retailers announcing plans to close hundreds of shops across the country.

You could be forgiven for feeling pretty downbeat.

But here's the thing – in the North East I think we've been pretty resilient and still have a lot to be optimistic about.

Exporting in the North East has grown in 2011 with Nissan particularly powering forward. We have also seen our growth in exports to Australasia grow by 300% from £100m to £300m since 2007, particularly with the Emirates flights out of Newcastle Airport.

The two Local Enterprise Partnerships for the North East are now well set up and Enterprise Zones have been agreed to encourage investment. The leadership of the LEPs must not be underestimated and a great weight of responsibility rests on their shoulders.

Speaking specifically about Greggs, we have continued to invest for the future. This year saw record shop openings with the creation of 800 retail jobs and the building of two bakeries.

We have opened a coffee shop called Greggs Moment right here in Newcastle and we have moved into wholesale with the supply of frozen sausage rolls to Iceland stores.

We are investing because we believe that the longer-term prospects remain good. We can see that if we are to grow successfully as a company we have to continue to invest and innovate. This is what I believe we will need even more companies to do right here in the North East.

Bill Midgley is a North East business executive, former chief executive of Newcastle Building Society and past chairman of the British Chambers of Commerce

TO SAY hopes of an improving year have been dashed is a statement of the obvious. However, 2011 has not been without its positive achievements.

The region's exports have held up well – this in spite of a lack of understanding of just what support is needed to those vital industries that have made this possible.

Perhaps, however, with the longer term in view is the resilience of our small and micro-businesses.

Admittedly, failures continue to be a problem, but there are many successes.

Support for small companies from banks, business agencies and development bodies is more about words than action yet so many survive and thrive. Hard work and innovation will bring about success.

Stoker Frater is National Farmers’ Union council member for Northumberland

THE early part of 2011 looked as if we would never see a summer. With snow well into February and an even colder but dry April, things looked bleak. But as usual nature has a way of balancing itself out and in early May the sun came out and the grass grew like it has never done before.

What at first looked like a light forage crop turned out to be a bumper one.

Although the weather was variable in June and July, crops had bulked up and silage pits were full to bursting point. With forecasts of good prices for cereals everything pointed to a bumper profit year.

But there is always something that spoils the fun. Fuel and fertiliser costs went through the roof and as the year end appeared grain prices started to fall. If ever there was a year to sell straight off the combine, this was it.

With the harvest gathered, the sowing of next year’s crop began. On the whole crops went in well and emerged quickly – too quickly in some cases with growth regulator having been to be applied. Most farmers would settle for another year like 2011.

Keith Hann, is a financial PR from Northumberland, a regular Journal columnist and born optimist

NEVERMIND the Arab Spring, the summer riots, the autumn anti-capitalist occupations and the looming winter of discontent. Forget about the deaths of bin Laden and Gadaffi, and the birth of Southern Sudan.

Ignore the tsunamis, earthquakes, mudslides, potential nuclear meltdowns and the relentless retreat of glaciers and polar ice caps.

Put from your mind, if you can, even the happy images of the Royal wedding, including that arresting rear view of the bride's sister.

Because none of those was the key event of 2011.

That took place all the way back on January 1 when Estonia joined the euro – the first instance in recorded history of a rat commissioning a fast launch to get it on board a rapidly sinking ship.

The political class of Estonia are thus elevated to that pantheon of geniuses who can be relied upon to show the rest of us what not to do, alongside the Financial Times, the European Commission, the Labour and Liberal Democrat front benches and virtually anyone called Bercow.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer