Hitting the ‘sweet spot’ for entrepreneurs

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The importance of broad advice for entrepreneurs and the ever-present subject of Brexit and beyond were aired at another of NatWest’s regular round table sessions.

Accountants Creaseys played host to the discussions at its modern of office, high on a hill above Tunbridge Wells. Its CEO Emma Roberts was among the delegates.

Representing the banking profession were NatWest’s regional MD Tim Boag, one of his relationship managers Matthew Newman and executive director with Coutts John Goss.

Joining them from the local business community were executive chairman of Crimson Tide data solutions Barrie Whipp, chairman and MD of Baldwin’s Travel Group Ron Marks, director of HotHouse Agency Emma Wood and owner of the Ecofresh laundry Lawrence Evans.

Taking the chair was South East Business magazine editor Christine Rayner.

After introductions, Christine threw open the discussion on how delegates approached requests for support from entrepreneurs and she invited Emma Roberts to start. As CEO of a busy accountancy firm, Emma said the company’s policy was to offer advice and a certain amount of “hand-holding” to newcomers so they understand the variety of issues that business owners face.

She said Creaseys’ “sweet spot” was in offering clients advice on how best to use their wealth and how to pass a business on to the next generation.

Tim Boag said the bank’s role with new business start ups was to provide a number of different types of support which may include “signposting advice”, as well as help with finance. This might involve crowdfunding or other social networking applications.

He said relationship managers like Matthew Newman were responsible for staying close to businesses, offering support where needed. NatWest runs 12 Entrepreneurial Spark “business accelerator hubs” across the country, including Brighton, where entrepreneurs are provided with free office space, facilities and advice. To date, NatWest has supported more than 1,400 aspiring entrepreneurs.

Tim was also keen to stress the need for more “gender specific” support for women, who are increasingly setting up in business and said NatWest was planning to significantly increase the number of specialist female advisers by the end of the year.

The relationship between a bank and its customers was vital, said Tim. It frequently took years to build and the professional manager took time to carefully consider customer needs of those who asked for advice.

Travel agent Ron Marks aired the view of the small business, quoting the example of his third son, who is 28 and wants to set up a fitness centre. His older sons are both MDs of Baldwins.

Ron said: “I shall have to look carefully at how to support him, if I agree to initially finance his business ambition. It’s not always a straightforward case of giving them money, you have to look at their long-term plans and decide what’s the best strategy.”

South African Lawrence Evans, who came to the UK with his family a year ago and has set up a “green” laundry business, said his experience dealing with banks here was “not great”.

He said it took many phone calls to the seller’s bank to complete negotiations, so when he needed to invest in machinery he opted for the quick and easy answer of a finance company.

“I didn’t want to go to a finance company, but they gave me an answer straight away,” he said.

Emma Wood, founder of the growth agency HotHouse, has seen life from both sides of the entrepreneurial fence, in her role as business development and strategic director with Max Media International.

She said: “My experience with entrepreneurs is that sometimes they are so focused on the track that they miss out on the building blocks. I deal with a broad spectrum of businesses and, quite frankly, some of them are pretty lost.”

Examples of the issues raised by her clients included: “My accountant/lawyer wants their fees”, “my bank manager is not as approachable as the TV ads suggest” and “I don’t know where to go for equity”. Emma also underlined the need for “the dots to be joined” and accused banks and other business advisers of failing to truly engage and understand the dynamics of small business.

Tim Boag said that while the system is not perfect for everyone part of this is because every business is unique with its own needs and
challenges. He reinforced NatWest’s commitment to finding new and different ways to work with the wider business ecosystem to support entrepreneurs and SMEs. An effort which be seen in initiatives like Entrepreneurial Spark.

“As a bank, we need to be clear in explaining what we can nance,” he acknowledged. “There’s a role in educating customers, and banks have an obligation to signpost other services they cannot offer.”

Emma Wood suggested forming what she called “SME clinics”, where new and growing businesses could find a “non-intimidating” atmosphere of advice from multiple sources, not just the traditional banks, accountants, finance houses and other professional service firms. This idea was welcomed the table.

Barrie Whipp, who founded Crimson Tide in 1996 and formulated its mobile data solutions in 2003, said that in his experience there was “a wall of money” and support available to entrepreneurs, if they knew where to look. He added: “I wish I was a young entrepreneur today. The finance options available are varied, including ‘business angels’, venture capitalists and banks. It’s a question of joining the dots and getting the very best advice,” he said – acknowledging that his was a fortunate sector to be in, with the speed at which digital business was growing.

Barrie raised the spectre of Brexit, believing the UK to be “fairly much a boom economy”, although his neighbour at the table, Coutts executive director John Goss, said it had to be pointed out that the South East was in a lucky position and that the South East was in a lucky position and Tunbridge Wells particularly so, with its enviably low unemployment rate.

Tunbridge Wells particularly so, with its enviably low wealthy south, there were pitfalls, with two very large companies in the area having gone into administration.

Tim said he tried to look at positives alongside the realities in business. He believed that post-referendum most people were “getting on with their day-to-day lives” and so were small businesses. Some larger enterprises were taking time to see where the UK stood during this period of uncertainty.

Ron Marks said that while the travel industry had softened immediately after the referendum, it had come back strongly in September and there was a general feel-good factor in the sector.

John said Coutts does not usually get approached by first time start ups, but any that to come knocking will be directed to where they can go for the best advice. At the same time, he said that several of the bank’s entrepreneur customers were keen to act as mentors for aspiring start ups as a way to give back to the business community and wider economy.

October/November 2016 | southeastbusiness.com

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