The North's top companies have bucked wider economic trends to record an overall increase in sales in the last year, new figures have indicated.

The combined turnover of the North's leading 100 businesses rose from £17.6bn (€22.3bn) to £19.8bn (€25.2bn), according to annual performance results.

Poultry processor Moy Park topped the survey, carried out by Ulster Business magazine, for the first time after registering an 18% rise in turnover to £921m (€1.17bn).

But profits for the top 100 have not risen on a similar trajectory as turnovers, according to the magazine's 24th yearly snapshot of the economy.

Profitability rose to £786m (€1bn) but the average profit margin for the listed companies remained at the 4% recorded last year.

Of the 100, 18 companies made a pre-tax loss.

The figures in the magazine's 2012 survey are based on latest company accounts filed at Companies House, with most relating to the 2010/11 financial year.

The magazine said the 12% increase in growth was partly attributed to the reinstatement to the list of Quinn Manufacturing, the continuing businesses of the former Quinn Group, as no comparable sales figures existed last year.

But excluding Quinn Manufacturing, Ulster Business said overall turnover for the other companies still increased by 8% on a like-for-like basis.

A number of big name companies posted significantly higher turnovers than last year - including FG Wilson with 18%, Henderson Group with 9%, Northern Ireland Water with 14% and United Dairy Farmers with 8%.

Symon Ross, editor of Ulster Business, said: "The figures on which the top 100 list is based provide some cheer, but nobody is likely to get carried away given the tough economic realities still facing most sectors.

"Many of our biggest businesses have succeeded in increasing their sales but profits haven't always moved in the same direction at the same pace.

"That said, we should not overlook the ongoing successes and innovation demonstrated by our large companies, particularly those who are thriving in export markets."

Companies linked to the agri-food/food and drink sector accounted for 23 places on the listing, while manufacturing contributed 15 companies, the construction sector 16 firms and another 16 businesses were related to energy.

Jonathan Cushley, of Dun & Bradstreet which carried out the survey on behalf of Ulster Business, said: "The 24th compilation of the Ulster Business Top 100 listing shows a return to positive sales growth after a dip in 2011 giving some cause for celebration in what remain difficult global trading conditions.

"It is encouraging that overall the top 100 businesses have maintained profitability, but it should also be noted that 18 of the companies are loss making, which is a 50% increase in the 12 reported in the 2010 listing.

"The biggest opportunities in coming years will likely fall to export companies, particularly those operating in emerging markets."

Number one listed company Moy Park said it was aiming to continue to strive for export success.

Managing director Nigel Dunlop said: "To be named as number one company in Ulster Business' top 100 is a great accolade. Moy Park has a long history in Northern Ireland, with the company being established here in 1943.

"We continue to grow sales and market share in fresh poultry and convenience foods as well as expanding into new products and categories. As a company we remain focused on continuous improvement and on delivering high quality, great value food to customers and consumers.

"It is great to see agri-food businesses listed in the top 100. The sector is leading the way for the local economy, currently accounting for around 20% of NI's private sector employment and generating an output worth £3.5 billion."

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