Enterprise: Off on the right footing even at the wrong time: A training company founded out of the public sector is thriving

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The Independent Online
WHEN a new venture, launched in a recession, is in the business of helping companies survive and thrive, it goes without saying that its founders did their pre-launch homework.

But etc limited did not have to start from scratch. Sally Wilton, its managing director, conceived and set up the Greater London Enterprise Training Centre as part of the GLE Group in 1987. In June 1992, the group contracted to core activities of development capital and property. There was an amiable parting of the ways, and a new private-sector company, etc limited, was born. Its seven founding members are shareholders.

Having convinced the bank that etc limited was a viable proposition, the second task was to retain clients built up from years in the public sector.

'We did not lose a single client,' says Ms Wilton. Her team, all former colleagues from GLE, had built up considerable expertise in helping small and medium-sized businesses.

As for launching in recession, Ms Wilton says it has its advantages. 'At the time, everybody thought it was suicidal. But in some ways it was a good time to launch, imposing disciplines. You can't start off with any fat. As things improve, you can always recruit and expand.'

The strategy paid off. A year after launch, etc limited won the Midland Bank's Most Successful Business Award for the South Thames region. Three of the winners in the other six categories are past clients. The company set itself a target of turning over pounds 500,000 in its first year. It achieved pounds 750,000. By next June, the company predicts that it will break through the pounds 1m barrier and have 17 people on the payroll.

The company also offers consultancy services, and is in the middle of a pilot management development course for women executives in the National Health Service. It is sponsored by the NHS Women's Unit and the four Thames regional health authorities as part of Opportunity 2000. Demand for places has vastly outstripped supply: 175 people were vying for one of 20 places.

Business Planning for Growth, a development programme for top managers in established companies, has proved a winner. Experts from leading training institutions, including Cranfield School of Management and Imperial College, are used as trainers. The course is spread over three months, with participants attending on Friday afternoons and evenings plus all day Saturday until they have notched up 10 days of intensive study.

Ms Wilton explains the thinking behind the course. 'The management art is to know which existing structures are sound, which need strengthening and which are obsolete. Our programme places emphasis on practical guidance - strategic planning, finance, marketing and management skills are all encompassed.

'To complete the course each delegate prepares a long-term 'plan-for- change', which is presented to a panel of leading bankers and venture capitalists.'

This, Ms Wilton says, allows course delegates to 'gain an edge over the competition' when they return to work. The management skills required for expansion and success are in place.

The BPG course is sponsored by Grant Thornton, the accountancy and consultancy firm, and all nine of the London Training and Enterprise Councils. This reduces the the cost per candidate from pounds 5,000 to a more affordable pounds 2,500.

The company is not short of plaudits from clients. The founding directors of More Balls Than Most - the company which took juggling into the boardroom in the UK and the US - say they went on many business courses. They are now running a pounds 2m operation and have settled on etc limited. 'We discovered a course which pulled all the bits together and showed their relation to one another. Our business managers would benefit from it,' one said.

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