Management: So what is the Government doing for my business?

The owners of Britain's small businesses are welcoming government help over late payment of invoices. However, economic success is patchy, and some businesses are having difficulty in recruiting and training suitable staff. Roger Trapp looks at a recent study.

Much has been made recently of the problem of late payment for Britain's small firms. The Government's proposal for legislation has received a guarded welcome in some quarters, but it is indicative of the extent of the variety within the small firms sector that not all agree with the lobbyists battling over this issue on their behalf.

According to research published last week, small business owners are generally sceptical about government intervention in this area. In particular, there was concern that customer relationships could be jeopardised if interest was charged on overdue invoices.

The study - based on focus groups rather than the more usual questionnaires - also finds great variance in business outlook. Certain sectors, especially in retailing, where out-of-town centres have hit high-street traders, and certain locations do not appear to be sharing in the overall upturn.

In addition, generally positive views of the new Labour government were - perhaps predictably - clouded by disappointment at the lack of direct assistance; while business owners recognised the need to delegate, they said they were hindered by a lack of staff with the necessary social and technical skills.

However, the researchers at Kingston University's small business research centre found that - for all these pressures - most owner-managers are strongly motivated. As well as financial rewards, the motivators were such factors as being independent and gaining satisfaction from establishing something from nothing.

The study was carried out last autumn in conjunction with the accountancy firm Horwath Clark Whitehill as part of an attempt to gain more objective information about the sector - and so enable it to provide better advice to this increasingly valued part of the sector.

Zahir Fazal, Clark Whitehill partner, explained the thinking behind the initiative, "Dialogue with Business Owners", by saying: "We not only want to give business owners a chance to air their views; we want their concerns and ideas to be listened to."

It is intended that the Kingston team will run the focus groups at business centres around Britain every six months, with the aim of gaining a better understanding of the sector and its concerns. It is believed that, by approaching the same group of business owners on a regular basis and gathering empirical information on their motivations, rationale, experiences and view, the two organisations have instigated a unique project.

Professor Robert Blackburn, leader of the Kingston team, said: "There is a shortage of qualitative research on the views, concerns, motivations and aspirations of small business owners. As the report shows, our study exposed some important and significant findings which are a refreshing and useful complement to the more common and routine, quantitative-based studies."

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