Small Talk: Celebrating regional talent and innovation will help to foster growth, says chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses


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The Independent Online

In many ways, London is in a league of its own. It is home to one of the world’s greatest financial centres. The capital is a crucible of trade and commerce for both established and emerging markets as well as being the hub of creative talent, but there is so much untapped potential in our nations and regions.

The UK is where the world comes to do business,  and one of the most enduring debates surrounding Britain’s economic future is whether the rest of the country actually benefits from the South-east’s dominance. For all it brings in to the national economy, is London’s success to the detriment of the UK’s regional cities?

Despite boasting the fastest-growing economy in the G7, there are lessons to be learnt from other leading economies around the world. The likes of Germany and the US have some formidable cities and their economies are more evenly balanced.

Key to this is ensuring that our small businesses are allowed to grow, and recent research compiled by Trampoline Systems has provided grounds for optimism in this regard. In the first ward-by-ward breakdown of the UK’s growth hotspots, the picture that emerged found many unexpected growth clusters outside the capital, even if London had the lion’s share of high-growth firms.

In my role as national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, I travel up and down the country meeting UK companies of all shapes and sizes. If anything this new research confirms what we already know to be true: that the spread of talent and growth potential of British businesses extends well beyond the confines of the M25.

There can be no doubting the strength of the UK’s small business community, which saw a record 526,000 start-ups established in 2013 – the vast majority away from London. These are the small firms fuelling economic growth, providing jobs for some 7m workers. 

I’ve long held the view that the UK undersells the potential of its regional cities as incubators for small businesses. The extraordinary progress made by cities such as Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester and Belfast is testament to the potential of “Brand Britain”, housing a wealth of creativity, technology and academic institutions.

Our universities are just one example of where talent and innovation are both diverse and evenly spread. In Cambridge we have a tech cluster more than capable of measuring up to London’s Tech City, while the University of Manchester’s discovery of graphene has spawned a series of start-ups.

Yet if we are to build a growth economy then we need to get better at articulating the strengths of our regional cities, celebrating the opportunities in Newcastle and Leeds as forcefully as London.

But we need to see investment in infrastructure to connect markets within the UK, but also to link them internationally.  With the vast majority (82 per cent) of FSB members relying on cars, vans and motorcycles, it is essential that the UK’s road networks are up to the task. This doesn’t just mean central government doing more but also local authorities have to step up to the mark.

Manchester has fast established itself as a media centre capable of rivalling London, while Birmingham has strengthened its digital credentials in recent years. My hometown of Liverpool has worked hard to build a reputation as the business capital of the North. Next month it hosts the International Festival for Business (IFB), a national celebration made up of more than 200 events that will put UK industries in the global shop window.

Backed by the Government, UKTI, the CBI and the FSB, the festival is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors over 50 days in June and July.  The FSB will be out in force during the festival which promises to be the biggest celebration of business since the Festival of Britain breathed life into a post-war UK.

The festival is also an excellent example of how a city can take the initiative and demonstrate its ambition. This is probably the biggest area where British cities need to up their game and recognise the outstanding assets they have at their disposal.

Our small businesses are fuelling growth across the country, and regional cities are well equipped with the talent and capital needed to take them to the next level. But to help our businesses to scale up we need to give our cities better online connectivity, faster roads and rail, and more belief to unlock this potential and capitalise on this fantastic growth opportunity.

John Allan is the national chairman for the Federation of Small Businesses and an ambassador for the International Festival for Business.

Design company reinvents itself as 3D printing hub

3D printing is becoming de rigueur for architectural, construction and engineering firms to make three-dimensional models of their work.

That’s according to Hobs Reprographic, a printing and design company set up by Kieran O’Brien in Liverpool in 1969 which is reinventing itself in the digital age.

Hobs Studio is a London offshoot specialising in 3D printing, based near the Old Street roundabout. The team of a dozen staff has seen a surge in demand from big names, such as Transport for London and the architectural practices founded by Lord Foster and Dame Zaha Hadid, to smaller clients.

“The tipping-point came about two years ago,” says Michelle Greeff, director of 3D Technologies at Hobs, who says revenues have risen 400 per cent since then.

Among Hobs’ recent creations has been a model for the refurbishment of Victoria Tube station. Eight different sections were printed in just two days.

The technique, using powder or metal, adds layers of a fraction of millimetre at a time but it is faster, more accurate and up to 80 per cent cheaper than a conventional plastic model

Ms Greeff says revenues should double again within the next couple of years, as Hobs has just installed what it believes is the biggest 3D printer in London, the IPRO 8000, which can “print” a model that is 75cm by 65cm by 55cm – about as big as a Formula 1 car engine.

Gideon Spanier

Small Business Person of the Week: Daniel Land, Co-founder, Coco di Mama

“My business partner, Jeremy Sanders, and I both enjoyed working for professional services organisations (myself for Merrill Lynch, Jeremy for Bain & Co) but we shared a passion for food that led us to this as a career choice.

“We started Coco di Mama in 2011, determined to create London’s first quick service Italian food business. Our love for great Italian food and coffee was the main driver for this, and we felt that this was something that was not being done well in London. 

“Along with our chairman, Sir Stuart Rose, we are extremely excited for the next few years for our business. We have grown the business from one store in 2011 to five today, all across the City, and we still love what we do. 

“Our stores open at 6.30am, and mornings are critical, so we get going early to make sure that everything is in place.

“Lunchtime is the most fun part of the day. Our stores serve a customer every 10 seconds so you could say that it’s a little bit busy.

“We are determined to maintain our core principles as we grow and great people sit at the centre of that. Nearly all of the managers within our business started on the shop floor, and there remains a family ethos.

“It helps that Jeremy and I have known each other for 30 years.”

Interview by Toby Green

David Prosser is away