By Phil Scholes, SME Markets Director, npower

As we edge closer to the end of 2014, now is the time to revisit annual plans and reflect on what has been achieved and, more importantly, what is required in the remaining months. Business owners need to ask themselves what has worked well this year and what could be improved upon, both during the rest of the year and into 2015. The answers to these questions will (to a large extent) dictate how much the business will grow during this time.

Think about growth
If things have gone well for your business this year, then it might be time to consider taking on some more employees so you can keep your customers happy and lay the foundations for further growth. A recent report from the Federation of Small Businesses stated that five per cent of businesses have increased their staff headcount from July-September 2014, and a further seven per cent of businesses plan to increase staffing levels before the end of the year. While these numbers may be small, a growing workforce highlights a positive stage in the business. Admittedly this can have an impact not only in terms of increased salary costs, but also general running costs. For those businesses considering increasing headcount, it may be possible to balance any additional salary costs by taking a fresh look at your running costs. One such cost to consider is energy.

Planning now could benefit the future
The Carbon Trust states that good energy management can result in cost savings of between five and 25 per cent per year . As such, businesses should use any planning time to revisit their energy contract to understand if they are still on the right energy plan for the business as well as ensure it will suit its changing business needs. If an existing energy contract is up for renewal, consider the available options – a Fixed price plan could offer greater budget certainty for up to three years, whereas a variable plan could provide the freedom to switch supplier at just 30 days’ notice. Lean on your provider here – a good provider will act as a partner and be able to best advise on what works best for your individual business.

Keep it simple
For those businesses that are ready to make a change in how they manage their energy, we believe there are four areas which hold the key to driving energy use down and cost efficiencies up.

1. Reduce wastage – It sounds simple, but if lights, air conditioning, heating and ventilation and other equipment are not required, then they should be switched off. Control systems are an effective tool available to do this. These technologies automatically switch off items like display cabinets when they are not in use.

2. Look at lighting – The Department of Energy and Climate Change outlined that lighting was one of the main energy uses in the engineering sector . Businesses keep premises well lit for customers and employees, but savings of up to 20 per cent could be achieved by making small investments in energy efficient lighting. Even small changes such as changing from halogen spotlights to LEDs could save up to 80 per cent of energy used and reduce maintenance costs too as they last much longer than traditional light bulbs.

3. Heating up – Assessing heating and ventilation equipment can also make a big difference. Heat can easily escape out of the front door or in buildings with large, open entrances. One way to save energy is to install ‘air curtains’ above the entrance. These provide a stream of hot air, keeping the warmth in and the cold out.

4. Get employees involved – All staff should be encouraged to think about their energy usage and consequently their role in reducing consumption. Appointing an ‘energy champion’ can be a simple but effective step. They can assist by taking responsibility for initiating small-scale efficiency practices and reminding colleagues of the everyday steps they could all undertake to bring energy usage down.

Ambition and confidence can often be half the battle for small businesses. By taking steps to evaluate the business as well as cutting unnecessary costs, SMEs could give themselves that all important edge over their competitors.