What are the issues affecting privately owned, independent businesses? How do they scale? How do they compete against multi-nationals? BLM brought together an expert panel to answer the questions.
What are the benefits to being an independent in a market dominated by multi-nationals?
James Woollam: “It would be easy to find it scary, as in our market the insurance brokers are multi-national, so they are not just double our size but one hundred thousand times our size. This gives them immense buying power.
“But what we’ve found is that if you are confident and independent it can be very exciting, as it provides a narrative with which you can hang everything around.
“In addition, clients want things done yesterday, in today’s world, and being independent allows us to be agile and deliver quicker solutions. When we come up against bigger firms we can do something in days that would take them weeks.”
Steve Preston: “It’s an advantage where you can make and implement decisions quickly in a
business. I have worked in corporates before where there are lots of processes you need to go through.
“In an organisation that is flat you don’t need to do that, and you can also keep your same levels of service, which is a huge benefit to customers.”
Rob Hall: “Independence is in our DNA, and our unique selling point is that we only work with other independent businesses, and making that decision has helped us to stand out in the market.
“You get Groupon or Vouchercloud who will work with anyone, but there is quality associated with independent businesses and we’ve decided we’re going to grow on the back of this.”
Ed Le Masurier: “In our sector, being privately owned has been an advantage. In the Bristol property market, you have two ends of the spectrum – the big nationals and independents. Increasingly smaller firms have been bought up by the big guys – King Sturge by JLL for example, so you get a long-lasting brand that no longer exists.”
Does being privately owned mean customers get a better service?
David Westgate: “From our point of view business is driven by customers wants, rather than a top-down corporate structure, so being agiler and able to make decisions quickly helps us a lot.
“I am the CEO and I can decide something in five minutes and it doesn’t have to go through a whole chain of command, so being private and independent is good for business. Does it mean a better service – often yes but not always.”
Not many privately-owned businesses get very large in Bristol – what is the secret to scaling?
Chris Worle: “It’s something we’ve achieved at Hargreaves Lansdown and it can happen again. It’s about growing steadily and with the city. It is interesting because we have remained quite a flat organisation and very dynamic; we are still based in one building.
“I would say it is about great products and service first but also about remaining true to your culture and spirit.”
Patrick Lincoln: “The question of scale is interesting as we’re looking at that now. We don’t want to lose that flexibility, but you get to a point where you need to be more structured and bring in people that are specialised in one area, rather than wearing lots of different hats.”
Ned Dorbin: “Businesses need to be more aware of bringing in outside help and the benefits of non-executive directors.
“The best businesses we see across the west have the perfect mix of the founder bringing the ambition and energy, but this is being supplemented by outside skills.
“It is rare that you see a pure family business outlive themselves.
“Seeing fewer big private businesses sell out to the nationals is also important because you’re more likely to be a role model to firms like Wriggle and provide a reference point.”
On the subject of scale – is there space for the independents to grow?
Paul Matthews: “The reality is that large chunks of the city centre have either become student or residential accommodation and we’re driving out potential business space. The small suites aren’t available anymore and this has reduced supply.
“There just hasn’t been much development over the last seven years.
“There are small units on the periphery, in places like Yate, but not much else. Permitted Development Rights (PDR) has helped, but it is also land owners seeking the highest values for their land.
“The ability to go to the second tier is difficult as many companies start off with a couple of thousand square feet but is there the room for them to take the next step unless they go out of the city?”
Robert Collier: “It is frustrating when you have large swathes of Bristol that haven’t been built on. You have the area behind the station that has been like this since 1993. Areas of Stokes Croft haven’t been developed.”
Gary Sheppard: “Part of the solution is about the council trying to enforce some decisions as lots of this land is owned by private companies and individuals. We need to have some local legislation that makes sure these sites are used.
“The second issue is infrastructure, if nothing is done it will stifle the growth of the city.
“It’s too difficult to get in and out of the city centre to do business, and impossible to find office space around the four to six thousand square foot mark.”
James Woollam: “If we continue to grow and promote ourselves as Bristol based I have some concerns over whether Bristol could cope with this. Bristol is known as a place that you queue, and there are some big structural issues that the city needs to solve – and I’m not sure the council is able to do so.”
James Hawkins: “Bristol is a great place to start a business and one of the innovation centres of the UK, but we fail at the next level of scale. The real problem is that firms want to grow but are driven to the outskirts of Bristol, where cheaper housing is; and unless we make it affordable to live and work in Bristol we will have students and restaurants and bars but not much else.”
Steve Preston: “If you take London though, not many people live in the centre – they live on the outskirts – but you have the infrastructure to get them in and out of the centre. We don’t have that in Bristol.
“If it is done properly, the city centre can be where you work and you have a 360-catchment area for living.”
How does Bristol rank as a home for independent businesses?
Ken Simpson: “Bristol is a hotbed for independent firms and exciting start-ups – you only have to look at firms like Pieminister, Boston Tea Party and Las Iguanas. Food seems to be the thing. But we’ve also got some cracking digital and technology firms too.”
What is the first impression of the city for people moving to work in Bristol?
Gareth Raisbeck: “The firm I have joined is well-established in Bristol and has been able to open lots of doors and explain things to me. But I’ve been surprised by how difficult it was to enter the Bristol market.
“If you know individuals, you can open doors but it is difficult to initially do so. But once you do there is a huge amount of money and enterprise here. I didn’t realise what a powerhouse Bristol was when I was living in Cardiff and the Midlands.”
How can smaller firms be helped to win larger contracts with the Council?
Ken Simpson: “Bristol City Council has a target of using 25 percent of their annual spend (£82m) with small, local firms. This is a big lump of money that is available to small businesses and they want to grow this.
“There is an opportunity here; as given the pressure on spending and the requirement to save around £90m, there has maybe never been a better opportunity for independent firms to win local authority contracts.
“The tendering process has been simplified too, and If you can save them money they are going to be receptive to it.”
Patrick Lincoln: “A challenge for small firms though is gaining the trust of councils and consumers; because they might not like the bigger names, but it takes a lot to convince them to change.
“They don’t want to take the risk of moving away from a recognised brand, and local authorities stick with the big providers because nobody wants to put their head on the block”
Gary Sheppard: “Council tenders are onerous and too difficult. Councils still have a short-term view and they say they want to support local firms but in reality, they don’t. There is an abundance of local firms in Bristol that can help with infrastructure but the council doesn’t use them.”