BELFAST BRIEFING: ANTRIM ON a cold, wet spring afternoon or São Paulo on a warm, sunny morning? Where would you rather be doing business today?
Martin McKay for one has no preference. He believes the business climate is exactly the same whether you are in Northern Ireland or Brazil, regardless of the respective temperatures.
It is this philosophy which has helped his company, Texthelp Systems, win its first major contract with a leading publisher in São Paulo.
McKay's Antrim-based business, which he co-founded in 1996, specialises in developing educational software. With this new contract its software will be used to teach English in a network of schools throughout Brazil.
McKay, who is Texthelp's chief technical officer, is hoping the contract win could mark the start a significant expansion into South America.
It is the latest ambitious move for Texthelp which, 16 years ago – backed by Dublin-based Delta Partners – started with a handful of employees working on a limited range of basic software programmes. Today it employs more than 100 people and has a suite of pioneering products designed primarily to improve the lives of anyone who has difficulty reading and writing.
Its products which support software, fluency tutors and digital talking ebooks are used by school children, university students, people with literacy difficulties and also those learning English as a foreign language.
Although Texthelp is headquartered in Antrim, more than half of its business currently originates in the US, where it operates from a base in Woburn, Massachusetts.
McKay now wants to replicate the success of its US operation, where it currently employs 40, in South America.
"We're really excited about the opportunities and we've found that Brazil is a good place for us to do business because there is a relatively open business culture and it is a good fit for us."
Northern Ireland-born McKay is adamant that Antrim is a great location for his company to continue to expand from.
"We've got good transport links to the rest of the world – for example, there is a daily Belfast to New York route and we can travel on anywhere from there to the rest of the United States – and we're also on the edge of every market in Europe here."
Tellingly, McKay says the domestic market – North and South – accounts for less than 1 per cent of Texthelp System's annual turnover.
"Our business is really outside of Northern Ireland – in the UK, Australia, Italy, Sweden, the US and now Brazil. We are now looking at China, South Korea and India next."
The North's Minister for Enterprise, together with the First and Deputy First Ministers, has just wrapped up a trade mission to India.
Arlene Foster believes the blossoming trade relationship between Northern Ireland and India has strong potential to deliver mutual benefits.
Foster has highlighted the experiences of Indian companies, such as LT Infotech, which has a software development centre in Belfast, and of Dungannon-based McQuaid Engineering and Pritchitts, a Co Down dairy products business, which both recently won their first major contracts in India.
Twenty-four firms and educational institutions took part in the Invest NI-led trade mission, and Foster wants more local businesses to look "further afield for opportunities".
"Reliance on the indigenous market does not offer much potential for growth. This month's index of production figures show that businesses that are export- oriented increased their output over the year despite the difficult economic circumstances."
Texthelp Systems is a textbook example of the potential benefits. Others could learn from its success.
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