Ulster Community Investment Trust (UCIT) has enjoyed another busy and productive year in financial, operational and capacity terms.
During 2015 UCIT approved loans of £6.27m across 56 different Charities, Community Organisations and Social Enterprises in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
This brings our total loan commitments, since the drawdown of our first facility back in 2001, to over £60 million.
We are very proud of our achievements, yet there is still much to do.
Our aim is to build our business further while supporting the work of an increasing number of third sector organisations, helping them increase their impact or sustain their activities. In order to do this into the medium term, it will be necessary for us to seek out further sources of capital. Every pound invested in UCIT is lent responsibly to enterprising community organisations, charities and social enterprises enabling them to pursue their objectives, provide improved services and sustain employment in areas where it is most needed.
Operating as both a financial organisation and a registered charity, our mix of financial expertise and local sectoral knowledge allows us to be uniquely placed to assist these organisations.
A number of our borrowers have been in a position to accelerate repayment of their loans this year and in some cases loans have been fully repaid ahead of term – all without penalty. This enables us re-cycle our capital more quickly to other worth projects maximising the impact of our work.
Demand for the Northern Ireland Small Business Loan Fund has surpassed our expectations. The Fund is managed by us on behalf of Invest Northern Ireland (INI) and delivered in partnership with Enterprise Northern Ireland. To date, we have supported over 220 Small / Medium Enterprises aggregating debt support fast approaching £5m – and demand continues to grow. Funding has been provided to a wide range of sectors / borrowers, financing a range of investments including capital expenditure, working capital growth, asset refurbishment / improvement, business start-up, franchise development, and many others. The Fund is playing an important role in supporting the growth of small business in Northern Ireland and its performance to date is the clearest possible evidence of the need for such interventions.
We have a wealth of talented small businesses in NI which contribute significantly to our economy. It is however frequently difficult for these businesses to raise funds from the mainstream banks for worthy projects. It is in these circumstances that the Small Business Loan Fund can make a huge difference.
With our committed executive team and our motivated staff, supported by an enthusiastic board, I look to the future development of the organisation and its contribution to the third sector with great confidence.
Over the year past, UCIT has continued to increase its portfolio of investments through two principal funds. The Trust’s core loan fund provides investments from £10k up to £500k+ to third sector organisations including sporting organisations, community associations, charities, green energy, faith-based projects, housing associations, social enterprises and a wide range of other worthy recipients.
Secondly we have continued to manage the Northern Ireland Small Business Loan Fund on behalf of Invest Northern Ireland. This fund is specifically channelled to start-up businesses, small but growing businesses, and established medium sized businesses seeking to expand. The fund has materially exceeded the objectives set for it at commencement.
During 2015 we continued to provide much needed financial assistance to a wide range of third sector organisations. By way of illustration, we funded Folktown CIC in their new farmers’ / artisan market in the centre of Belfast. A UCIT loan enabled PIPS Suicide Prevention to acquire premises helping them build additional capacity and extend their services. We also supported Richhill Women’s Institute refurbish their premises, in the process enabling them establish a rental income to sustain their activities in future years.
We have also been very pleased to support a number of our existing / past clients with new or increased loan facilities to enable them further expand their enterprises, retain or increase their workforce and increase their social impact.
Some years ago, we assisted Blythswood Care with a loan to finance the purchase of their headquarters and warehouse in Ballyclare and we have been delighted to help fund each of their further investments as they have expanded their activities into Coleraine and most recently, to Ballymoney.
During 2015 we were also very pleased to assist Landmark East, a progressive urban regeneration company operating in East Belfast with a fourth loan facility. Support of £200,000 from UCIT enabled Landmark to undertake the development of a substantial building project at the Holywood Arches, in the process improving the visual aspect of the area.
In many cases, absent the support of UCIT, our clients may have struggled to raise the funding necessary to progress their growth ambitions.
Looking beyond the third sector, over 70 small businesses in Northern Ireland benefitted from the Northern Ireland Small Business Loan Fund during 2015 with £1.5m of debt support made available. The Fund is also open to social enterprises and a number of organisations in that broad sector have availed of it.
As referred to in the Chairman’s report, the Small Business Loan Fund has proven very successful to date and we are fast approaching its monetary limit. Whether a second fund is to follow is correctly a matter for others to decide, but to this point in time, the evidence points towards continuing demand from the SME sector. Certainly from UCIT’s perspective it has been very rewarding to partner Invest NI in delivering this important funding mechanism.
In conclusion, I wish to thank our small staff team for their dedication and hard work and to our voluntary board members for their strategic guidance and enthusiastic support throughout. We look forward to achieving further growth in the year ahead and in the process, attracting further capital to meet the needs of the CVSE sectors at a time when continuing austerity, slower payment cycles, a difficult economic environment, tighter availability of grant support and ever narrowing margins are combining to challenge sustainability in a growing number of cases.
Chief Executive, UCIT