30/07/2012

By Robert Craven, MD at Directors Centre

One week. Four presentations at very different locations.

FIRST TWO — East London and Birmingham

Attended two exhibitions as keynote speaker and panellist. In both instances the poverty was obvious for all to see: kids hanging loose on the streets with nothing to do, obscene racist graffiti, boarded-up businesses with old ‘For Sale’ signs, businesses struggling to survive. The places were tired, forgotten and unloved. These were areas that Cameron and Clegg had pretended weren’t happening.

SECOND TWO — Central London and Bristol

Another two presentations but the areas were very different. Continental cafes, designer clothes, artisan bread, trendy shops and a real sense of vibrancy.

So which is a fair representation of the UK today?

Well, I suspect that both are.

Clearly we are in Year Three (or four?) of the recession. This is not something that the media has simply talked us into. Right now there is third world poverty in our streets: homeless, unemployable kids sleeping rough, a vast army of what the Sunday paper like to refer as the ‘underclass’ is alive and not so well in today’s UK.

On the other hand, I have to admit that I think it is fair to say that one can really see the naffly-referred-to ‘green shoots of recovery’.

Green shoots?

The consultancy business that I run (alongside the speaking and other businesses) has seen a sudden change in demand. The phone has started ringing again. Actually it has always rung but the last 36 months has seen an unparalleled number of distress calls. The typical call would include phrases like ‘running out of cash’, 'brick wall’, 'demand has collapsed’.

The calls, meetings and audiences are (mostly very different now). I would argue that there is a sense of there being a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ (another naffly-referred-to and over-used phrase). I would argue that there is a sense of optimism and opportunity.

Maybe the deadwood, the most vulnerable business, have packed up and gone home. After all there is a time in a business when the owner can earn more money stacking shelves at Sainsbury’s. Or maybe there is a bit more opportunity and a bit more optimism out there.

For my own businesses and those of our clients, we see order books that are starting to look perky. Positive calls and meetings are taking place. Proposals are being written. Decisions are being taken. Trade is brisk. For us and for a large number of clients.

So is the recession behind us? Time to loosen our belts? Break out the champagne? Well not for everyone.

So, green shoots?

Well, I think the answer is ‘yes’.

There is definitely something going on. Not for everyone, but for many.

I can cite an ice-cream manufacturer, a business club, an event organiser, a franchisor, an international estate agent... all of whom are about to report their best year yet. (I have to confess I am also aware of a few businesses that have run out of puff and in almost identical markets. Maybe it is a glass half-full/half-empty scenario.)

What I can say is that there are more than just ‘some businesses' out there who are cutting deals, signing joint ventures and stepping up to their challenges. I see entrepreneurs getting their desired funding and putting in place the infrastructure for the next stage of their business growth. For others it is probably too early to say — there’s still some way to go before you can relax. (For some, it is too late.)