Manufacturers show they can make a difference

TWO COMPANIES have demonstrated that manufacturing is alive and kicking in Britain by sharing first prize in the first Business Links Making the Difference Awards. AST Group, a business that supplies "surface treatments" for the defence industry, and Peter Miles Engineering, which makes steel fabrication for the off-highway vehicle industry, each received pounds 10,000 from Richard Page, the junior minister with responsibility for small firms.

The competition, supported by the Department of Trade and Industry and Shell UK, was designed to reward companies that had worked successfully with their local Business Links on a specific project leading to improve performance, products and services. The two companies shared the prize because the judges felt that they had performed impressively while at different stages of development.

AST, which uses an innovative dry plastic technique in its treatment of aircraft, tanks and other specialist applications, joined with Business Link Gloucestershire to devise and put in place a strategy that would create a stable platform for meeting its growth potential as well as reducing the dependency on a small number of large customers. It has secured new funding, increased production capacity by a half and secured contacts with Europe.

Peter Miles Engineering needed to invest in technology to become a leading company. With help from Business Link Metropolitan Wigan it has drawn up a strategy based on the World Class Manufacturing Programme for attaining this status over five years. It, too, has secured funding as well as installing new technology and training staff to operate it.

Each business, along with the other eight finalists, had already been awarded pounds 5,000. The recognition of these "role models for our small businesses", as Mr Page referred to them at last week's awards ceremony, comes at a time when it emerged that two executives at the Merseyside Business Link had been suspended pending an insolvency investigation. Last week also saw a report from the Institute of Directors that found that the quality of Business Links was mixed.

The Business Links form a national network of "one-stop shops" where firms can obtain a range of advice and information at little or no cost to help them expand. Though private sector organisations, they bring together the links of Training and Enterprise Councils, chambers of commerce, local authorities, enterprise agencies, universities and banks.

The first two schemes, in Leicester and Birmingham, opened in September 1993 and there are now 72 partnerships, with 194 outlets.

The IoD report found that there was widespread support among businesses for the concept but it called into question the quality of the personal business advisers. It said directors were not convinced that all of the people who were fulfilling this role had the necessary solid business experience.

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