Earlier this month some of the region’s business leaders gathered to look at how to support small business during the downturn. Here Dave Smallwood, managing director of event hosts BT Local Business Birmingham, looks at what came out of their discussions

While the national picture points to tough times, there remain pockets of success and some thriving companies in our own backyard. Whether struggling or recognising new opportunities from the current market conditions, making the most of the help and support that is available is the key to business survival. So say the regional business influencers who attended a roundtable discussion in Birmingham.

Representatives from Aston University, Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, the CBI West Midlands & Oxfordshire, Advantage West Midlands, Business Link in the West Midlands, the West Midlands Enterprise Board, Clay Rogers & Partners and Defensive Driver Training joined me to discuss how we can keep the 138,380 dynamic businesses in the region – nearly 20,000 of which are based in Birmingham – successful during these more challenging times. The event followed Small Business Week 2008, a national campaign, bringing together government, business and independent organisations to champion the UK’s 4.6 million small businesses.

Even before the current developments in the financial markets, some West Midlands firms were finding conditions challenging. With enterprises an essential part of our region’s infrastructure, it is important that the business community regroups and focuses its energies on helping small enterprises to thrive.

Attendees agreed with BT Business’ State of the SME

Nation research report, launched to coincide with the start of Small Business Week. It highlighted that financial barriers – including access to credit – are a major worry for local firms. It also revealed that more than half (55 per cent) of Birmingham firms are coping with rising costs during the current downturn. However, despite difficult credit flow, roundtable guests believed that local businesses must not lose confidence and adopt a ‘batten down the hatches’ approach to business.

Jerry Blackett, CEO, Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, stressed that businesses’ current plans and activity must not be a knee-jerk reaction to the current economic climate, but rather a strategic approach to survival and growth. Carefully considering how to control costs to operate in a more efficient and productive way will help firms trade their way out of these more difficult times and be ready to take advantage of the upturn when it comes.

Talking to other small companies in the locality every day, I would say that there is still an appetite for growth in the West Midlands and these ambitions can be realised with the correct help.

One of the main hurdles to be overcome however is businesses’ lack of awareness of the support available.  BT Business’ research shows that despite the availability of advice from BT, the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, Business Link West Midlands, Advantage West Midlands amongst others, only 36 per cent seek support from private organisations, while a similar number (35 per cent) turn to the internet for assistance. Worryingly, a fifth of businesses in the region admitted to going it alone without any advice.

By not realising the wide range of resources that are available to help, small businesses are missing opportunities that could make a real difference to their bottom line. Not only are there free products and services that can save businesses’ time and money and introduce them to potential new customers, there are also expert advisors that can help set in place the best systems, processes and practices to make sure your business is a success. 

One example is flexible working which can help cut travel costs, reduce wasted time out of the office, and improve staff motivation and productivity.  Many of my team work from home. We hear from other small companies every day, who want support and advice to make it happen for their staff.  Technology is the key enabler of flexible working and here in Birmingham we are fortunate to have extensive wireless broadband coverage, allowing us to be productive out of the office.  For people in the rest of the West Midlands, mobile broadband makes working on the move possible.

There are other clever ways that firms can use IT and communications to profit. Amazingly 62 per cent of UK businesses are said to have more than four suppliers for telecoms and IT alone. Careful management and consolidation can reduce the time and money your firm is spending.

Other ways to cut costs can be as simple as making more calls using VoIP telephony, switching to online IT support or using software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications – which cut out expensive software licence fees. You can also reach new customers through an enhanced web page. My message is that there will always be opportunities for growth and making the most of the resources available will give you a head start.