By Lea Pachta

The present economic downturn can be a catalyst for growth and better business support, according to the Chief Executive of the Forum of Private Business, Phil Orford, who was speaking at the Forum’s business support event in Manchester yesterday.

Mr Orford compared the climate faced by the UK’s small businesses to the industrial turmoil of the late 1970s and early 1980s, an era that saw great economic and social decline but also the birth of modern business support organisations, including the Forum.

He argued that the need for new, relevant business support is just as strong today as it was a generation ago.

“The Forum of Private Business was formed in the late 1970s, primarily to be a lobbying organisation for regional businesses,” Mr Orford told a crowd of about 100 delegates, including many business owners from across the region. “Why the Northwest? This is where the industrial revolution started and people in the Northwest are known as being innovators.

“The industrial decline of the 70s and 80s is seen as stimulating the growth of business support. We don’t think that the business support services of today can be prescribed as standard — every business owner’s needs are different and it’s important that we cater for all of them.

“Wherever you feel you need support as a business owner but don’t have that management structure in place we’re there to be an extension to your team.”

Emphasising the link with the past, Mr Orford mentioned Bill Humphrey, the wartime pilot and entrepreneur who set up the enterprise agency and, in the 1978, the Community of St Helen’s Trust to help the Merseyside town cope with redundancies at glass maker Pilkington, the largest local employer at the time. Mr Humphrey died recently aged 86.

At the event, which was held at the City of Manchester Stadium, the not-for-profit business support and lobby group launched its new range of tailored support solutions. They have been designed to meet the specific needs of small firms, providing real business solutions to help them grow in a post-recession economic environment.

The solutions are: ‘Finance Director’, ‘Legal Director’, ‘HR Director’, ‘Health and Safety Director’, ‘Development Director’, ‘Purchasing Director’, ‘Communications Director’ and ‘Managing Director’.

Mr Orford, who also presented the findings of research into the needs of small businesses carried out by the Forum during the past year, said that the coming 18 months are likely to be “very difficult”.

He spoke about changes to business finance, customer expectations, relationships with suppliers and changes to employment demographics.

Mr Orford said: “Businesses will need to adapt and evolve and there will be a need for greater collaboration going forward. If I look at my own kids now — both, for some reason, are studying business — the way they will need support in five years time will be totally different.

“We’ve repositioned ourselves to be more relevant to the changing needs of businesses. We are a not-for-profit organisation — every penny and pound we make is reinvested back into supporting our members.

“Bill Humphrey wanted to put something back and I believe the Forum has the same ethos.”

As part of its new structure, the Forum of Private Business is offering a free introductory membership for firms.

Mr Orford was followed by Kavita Oberoi, one of the UK’s most successful entrepreneurs and a star of TV’s The Secret Millionaire.

Having started her IT and business healthcare consultancy in 2001, Mrs Oberoi was able to tell delegates some of the secrets of her success.

“I think a lot of what I’m doing — and my drive — is about proving that you can do a number of things. I was told I couldn’t do medicine because — at 26 — I would be far too old when I finished for anyone to want to marry me,” she said.

“I’ve made mistakes — If I’d have known about the Forum and development agencies I would certainly have taken advantage of them, but I didn’t. It was all a learning curve, you learn from your mistakes and life teaches you a lot.”

“For me, if you want something the first thing is dreaming it, visualising it — then it’s done.”

Mrs Oberoi, who was inspired to start her business after being passed over for promotion, said it is important to find a balance between collaboration and competitiveness.

“At one point, businesses wouldn’t work with others because they were competitors. These days you have to work together. It’s important to support each other — whatever you put out will always come back.

“However, success in life isn’t just based on your ability to change but your ability to change faster than your competitors.”

Also speaking at the even was Tim Sheward, Director of Enterprise at the North West Development Agency. In addition, there was a workshop on accessing finance held by Gaynor Dykes, Manager of Business Link Northwest’s Access to Finance Initiative, and another on equality at work run by Les Venus of the UK Council for Access and Equality (UKCAE).

The event closed with a question and answer session featuring a panel including Mrs Oberoi, Mr Sheward, Managing Partner at Yorkshire Bank Trevor Forrester and John Doyle, Trade Adviser to UK Trade and Investment (UKTI).

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