Margareta Pagano: Banks reluctant to lend but new firms are getting out of this jam
Midweek View: If there's a right time to be lending to SMEs, it's now. Ironically, recessions are always a fertile time for enterprises to get going
Margareta Pagano is a former business editor of the Independent on Sunday who now writes columns and business interviews for a range of publications, including the Independent, Independent on Sunday and London Evening Standard.
Wednesday 15 February 2012
I met two of the most cheerful businessmen I've come across in a long time while taking part in the BBC's Show Me the Money programme at the weekend. One is Fraser Doherty, the young Scottish entrepreneur who learnt how to make jams with his grandmother when he was 14, and who now sells his SuperJam brand to Waitrose and most of the country's other biggest supermarkets.
Mr Doherty has just been to Beijing to lecture the Chinese on entrepreneurship –even though they don't much like jam – holds jam tea parties for the elderly in Scotland, is heading for his first million and is still only in his early twenties. He employs eight people but is looking to expand with new products – there's a peanut butter or SuperNut in the pipeline – and has a close relationship with his Manchester manufacturer, who has been helpful to him in growing the business.
The other is Craig Donaldson, the chief executive of Metro Bank, the first new bank in the UK for more than 100 years, which opens on a Sunday and allows customers to bring in their dogs (or cats) with them. He has 10 stores and plans for another 10 this year, employs 400 people and is looking to hire another 300 this year – jobs that are advertised in the local branches because having employees who live and work in the community makes sense.
Both are in industries where there are many rivals. They have gone into their industries not to cause a revolution, but to add a little twist. In Mr Doherty's case it was using grape juice instead of sugar while for Mr Donaldson and his backers the special ingredient was simply about providing better customer services than those being given by the big five high street banks. But there was something even more special about these two entrepreneurs – extraordinary confidence, self-belief and a quiet enjoyment that they were doing something different and good.
I mention them because of the latest figures on bank lending, which show that the high street banks fell short in their net lending to SMEs under the Project Merlin agreement by about £1bn. Of course it's disappointing but it shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise as asking the banks to lend to small businesses at this stage of the economic recovery is like asking a reformed drunk to take up the bottle again. Most of the big five banks did meet their targets – RBS was the main sinner – but from what one is hearing, the real problem faced by SMEs is not only the lack of supply of funds but the terms. Interest rates are still far too high for SMEs while many loan agreements are unnecessarily complex. So if ministers are serious about helping SMEs, they must do more to force the high street banks to be more transparent about such agreements and to simplify them.
However, what's more interesting is seeing how human nature adjusts so quickly to new situations. If the banks are drying out at AA, then young entrepreneurs and SMEs are looking elsewhere for their funding; there's more self financing going on with new entrants like Metro but also a growing number of all sorts of innovative models like angel "crowd funding" from companies such as kiva.com.
Mr Doherty, for example, did not borrow any money from banks to start his business and hasn't needed to borrow any since because SuperJam's expansion has been financed out of working capital. He was smart enough to have close relations with his suppliers and the jam-making factory that have given him credit and time to pay.
In the 18 months he's been running Metro, Mr Donaldson has acquired 55,000 new personal customers and more than 4,000 small business clients. His commercial customers are typical of the SME sector, the biggest having turnover of about £20m. All the Metro stores have bank managers, and properly trained ones to look after the small business owners; a case of back to the future.
It also makes good business sense. If there is a right time to be lending to SMEs, it's now. Mr Donaldson is seeing the tide turning already. There's a big demand for loans from people made redundant wanting to start their own businesses with their lay-off money while many established businesses are taking the opportunity to buy their leaseholds as the property sectors deleverage. Ironically, recessions are always a fertile time for new enterprises to get going; think Apple and Microsoft in the 1970s or Virgin and Tesco of the 1980s. Who knows, maybe SuperJam and Metro will be the new titans of the next decade ?
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