Top 50: The high spirits of free enterprise

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GOVERNMENT MINISTERS and others concerned about the state of British industry should find great encouragement from the latest listing of the UK's fastest growing private companies compiled by the Independent on Sunday. Businesses from all over the country and operating in a variety of sectors have reported amazing growth over the past five years - and created thousands of jobs as well.

As such, the picture revealed in the research carried out by KITE, the organisation sponsored by BDO Stoy Hayward to develop leaders of growing businesses, is broadly similar to that in the eight previous surveys conducted by the Independent on Sunday.

When the exercise began in the early Nineties, it was still generally assumed that large quoted companies were responsible for much of the country's growth and that private companies were generally marginal players. However, the spate of downsizing caused by the early Nineties challenged such assumptions, especially when it became clear that other organisations were growing up in their place and beginning to move far beyond the province of the niche business.

What has not changed since the early Nineties, though, is a general feeling that for all these examples Britain is less entrepreneurial than the United States. The current government is showing particular interest in changing that culture, with Gordon Brown especially keen to use his budgets to encourage enterprise.

However, last week's publication of the annual R&D Scoreboard by the Department of Trade and Industry's innovation unit demonstrates that - since the biggest UK companies are spending less on research and development than their international counterparts - there is still some way to go.

Away from the glare of the stock market, though, many companies are showing the sort of enterprise that is needed. Not all of them are investing millions of pounds in high-tech developments, but they are seeing opportunities for growth and acting fast to exploit the potential.

Nor is it just a select group of entrepreneurs at the top of these organisations that are leading the way. Increasingly, the founders of such businesses are creating cultures that actively encourage initiative and as a result often spawn new businesses.

For example, JD Wetherspoon founder Tim Martin's brother, Gerald, has since left the business to set up the Old Monk pub company, while the founders of Computer Futures, the second-placed company in this year's listing, have helped establish several other businesses, including Progressive Computer Recruitment.

Jeremy Newman, director of KITE, said: "The results show that the growth in private companies is not restricted to any sector or geographic area. Everyone has a chance to succeed - providing they invest in their people and in leadership within the business."