Mark Burton is regional managing director at Lloyds Bank Commercial Banking in London and the South.
The UK’s medium sized business (MSB) community has a combined yearly turnover of £1 trillion, and contributes twice as much to Britain’s economic output as the financial services industry. Yet in this month’s Budget, mid-market enterprises were scarcely mentioned despite David Cameron telling this year’s British Chambers of Commerce annual conference that he wanted to see to the UK developing “its own version of Germany’s Mittelstand”. For the nation’s MSBs, all eyes remain on the Government to see if it will still seek to deliver this aspiration.
Growing MSBs looking to scale up and recruit will welcome the Government’s pledge to fund 3million new apprenticeships, but many enterprises are hoping for more radical action. Business owners often rank skills shortages high on their list of concerns, but it affects MSBs in particular, as big corporations can swallow up the best talent.
The Careers & Enterprise Company launched last year to encourage greater cooperation between business and schools is a welcome step, as it may help schools deliver the skills younger generations need for work. Yet many businesses want to reach a stage where the education system resembles the German model, with more emphasis on vocational options and work experience in higher education.
Skills are not the only challenge that needs addressing. Exporting is often spoken about in abstract macroeconomic terms in relation to its impact on the balance of payments, but more than that, it opens our businesses to the world. We’ve seen that MSBs are one of the economy’s success stories. However in spite of their performance, they lack the confidence to tap into overseas markets. Recent research from Lloyds Bank showed that three in five mid-sized are still not exporting in any capacity.
What’s stopping them? The businesses we surveyed listed a number of factors; the lack of contacts, and the complexity of legal and regulatory requirements ranked the highest. Given George Osborne’s commitment to double the UK’s exports by 2020, MSBs are still waiting for real commitments to address these obstacles.
UKTI has so far done a great job in helping businesses overcome these challenges. According to our survey, of those UK exporters who have used UKTI, over four fifths said they found the department very useful or helpful in reaching their aims. However, over two fifths of UK exporters were not aware of the organisation, so MSBs could really benefit from an expansion of UKTI’s services and education about what it can offer.
Furthermore we cannot discuss the challenges that MSBs face without touching on regulation and access to finance. Mid-market enterprises are still waiting to hear more information on the government’s commitment to slash £10billion in red tape, and its ‘help to grow’ fund. Devolution will also be on the agenda; councils in Manchester and Cambridge are now able to keep 100 per cent of additional growth in business rates, and businesses under different local authorities have been looking to receive the same treatment. This way, more council revenue can be invested in local enterprise.
MSBs have been a victim of their own success. From the outset of the economic downturn, the immediate concern was the health of our small businesses, who were hit hard by a fall in demand and an adverse lending environment. Policymakers took notice and poured time and resources to address these challenges. Meanwhile mid-market enterprises were leading our economic recovery from the middle, creating 185,000 new jobs and increasing turnover by an average seven per cent between 2010 and 2013; more than double that achieved by large firms in the same period. So as the outlook for the rest of the economy improves, we should no longer deny MSBs the attention they deserve.