The new, slimmed-down Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) is preparing for life following the biggest internal restructuring since it took over from the old Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB) in 1991.

Gone are HIE's nine local enterprise companies (Lecs) that were the building blocks of economic and social development in the Highlands and Islands for the past 17 years. With them went 100 Lec directors.

Gone, too, from HIE's employment (although still in the same building) are 150 staff working in careers advice and national training programmes. These areas have now become the responsibility of the Scottish government's new body, Skills Development Scotland.

A further 59 have left through a voluntary severance scheme, leaving an annual budget of between £85m and £90m and a 350-strong staff to concentrate on three new principal areas: supporting high-growth businesses and sectors; creating the infrastructure and conditions to improve regional competitiveness; and strengthening communities, particularly in fragile and remote areas.

According to William Roe, HIE chairman, the agency will be concentrating on the 500 or so businesses classed as having significant growth potential, particularly in six key sectors: creative industries, energy, financial and business services, food and drink, life sciences and tourism.

Through the Business Gateway scheme, local authorities will take over responsibility for providing information and advice to the 600 or business start-ups each year.

If any of these firms demonstrate obvious potential to grow in a national market they will be automatically be flagged up on HIE's radar.

Roe said: "In future, HIE will be more closely involved with businesses and sectors which have high growth potential and aspirations.

"We will concentrate on working with businesses which can operate regionally, nationally and internationally, helping them improve competitiveness and productivity."

Resources will be targeted towards clients who can potentially achieve the greatest impact on the regional economy.

"The Scottish government wants us to intensify effort on our core strengths, on promoting sustainable economic growth, on building more dynamic, successful communities, and to draw on our experience in partnership-working to achieve this."

Roe added: "In future, HIE will work with high growth companies, most likely to be in one of these six key sectors, through an account management' model."

As well as forming close relationships with businesses which have potential for high growth in each of its nine geographical areas, HIE will also be encouraging such firms to develop international strategies. "We will be doing this in close association with Scottish Development International to ensure our account-managed businesses take an international view to develop both the volume and the range of their overseas business activities."

Under its remit to improve regional competitiveness, HIE would be seeking to identify and invest in key strategic projects which have the potential to transform area economies across the Highlands and Islands and contribute to regional and national growth.

These would include the University of the Highlands and Islands project, marine energy development, transport and telecoms infrastructure.

Roe and HIE chief executive Sandy Cumming stressed yesterday that none of this refocusing would be at the expense of HIE's social development role which it inherited from the old HIDB.

Culture and heritage would still be a mainstay of HIE's activities. It would still be helping communities, particularly in remote locations, not least to take control of their assets such as local land to help stimulate economic activities.

Cumming added: "HIE's ethos has always been to embrace change. It provides opportunities to explore different approaches, particularly as technology makes new practices possible.

"It is an especially exciting time for the Highlands and Islands economy.

"Through these changes we are confident we can take forward the Scottish government's ambitious economic strategy and can support the Highlands and Islands to show a sustained pattern of growth."