James Ashton: Some small businesses want to stay that way

Getting an accurate idea of what is going on in the nation's small businesses isn't easy.

The perception is they are on their knees; bound up in red tape and lacking confidence to take risks, especially after this week's retreat back into recession. Above all, they are struggling because those nasty banks won't lend enough so they have sufficient headroom to trade.

The bankers I met this week were at pains to rebalance the picture. The customers they see are getting by despite anaemic economic growth. They have cash, but don't want to spend it. If anything, there is evidence that bosses of small firms are becoming more cautious by locking up their spare money for the longer term in accounts that bear a greater interest rate.

Royal Bank of Scotland says that the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that bank with it in Britain have £30bn in unused overdraft facilities available. Plenty of headroom to get on with doing business. Over the road at Barclays, of the business loan applications it receives, 80 per cent are approved on a pretty consistent basis.

Now of course there are gaps where firms aren't being catered for. Banks – and not just Barclays – have plenty to do to work on their corporate image which still lags that of the branch relationship manager. Everyone in the City knows an entrepreneur with a banking horror story.

Getting it right supports the hope that some of today's 4.8 million small businesses will be the large companies of tomorrow.

However, the truth is that very few corporate oaks grow from entrepreneurial acorns. That is partly because of the failure rate and partly because those that become successes sell out when they reach a certain size. There is another reason, though. Many bosses of small firms have no desire to get bigger.

For them, running a business is a lifestyle choice. Leave aside the fact that recruiting new staff is expensive and time consuming. It also takes a self-employed boss away from the golf course or their children.

Far from saving the economy, the message to the banks from them might just be: leave us alone.

j.ashton@independent.co.uk

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