By Alex Evans, Editorial Director, National Business Awards

Each of this year’s 30 finalists in the 3i Private, Grant Thornton Mid-Cap and Coutts & Co Large-Cap Business of the Year categories offer insights into the approaches and industry sectors that have defied the recession over the last year.

Launching a regional campaign in March this year to identify outstanding private and publically listed companies across the UK, the National Business Awards organised a series of five Growth Summits in Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham, Edinburgh and London to attract representatives from a cross-section of industries and businesses of all sizes. Under the broad theme of ‘Lessons from the Recession’, each conference was designed to encourage the best companies in the region to share their experiences of how they had adapted to the downturn and driven growth in extremely challenging times.

This activity, combined with research of the UK’s top performing businesses from national league tables and respected sector specific awards, resulted in the identification of 30 finalists across three ‘Business of the Year Award’ categories - for Private, Mid Cap and Large Cap companies.

Exemplary models

“Fundamentally, all of these companies have been selected because they are exemplary performers in sectors that have proved to be the most resilient or have begun to see growth after such a challenging year,” explained Alex Evans, Editorial Director & Head of Judging for the National Business Awards, who led the research for this year’s Business of the Year finalists. “They all offer different insights on what business needs to do to adapt and prosper in tough times.”

Commenting on top performing industries and key players, Evans said: “Construction, recruitment, and media were the first to be hit by the recession, but the strongest players are leading the recovery with confident acquisitions and new launches to consolidate their market leading position - with Berkeley Group buying land, Staffline and Matchtech both investing in new training brands, and Pearson investing £1.6bn in education platforms over the last five years.”

The recession has proved to be a fertile environment for a range of sectors, as Evans explains: “Financial services have performed well, as evidenced by record profits and sales for insurers Hiscox and Wesleyan Assurance Society, while life and pensions provider Aquila Group Holdings has seen revenues grow by 23%. Retail stars include The Co-operative Group, which reported record 31% increase in sales. Online retail has also done well, with Cheapflights doubling its profits, while digital information specialist Autonomy saw sales growth of 47%.”

Ones to watch

This year’s Business of the Year finalists also highlight several industries with growth potential. “Domiciliary care, data & communications, and leisure real estate are emerging as sectors to watch,” Evans observes, “with Allied Healthcare expanding its network and acquiring over the last year; Telecity Group enjoying a 73% rise in revenues since 2007; and Wyndham Exchange & Rentals seeing 10% growth in its UK holiday cottage business as more Brits opt for ‘staycations’ (with 10 million fewer trips abroad last year according to the Office for National Statistics).”

Concluding with some observations on business trends and success factors, Evans said: “A more entrepreneurial and unfettered approach helped private companies like DCS Europe, which distributes health and beauty products, achieve record profits in 2009; while food retailer Iceland hit £2.3bn in sales this year and now boasts over 700 stores.

“International expansion has certainly been a growth factor, helping global engineering and consultancy firm Mott MacDonald achieve an 11% increase in revenue, while York based telecoms IT firm Ioko has seen compound growth increase by 30% thanks to a worldwide client-base.

“Diversification also helped our finalists weather the recession, with Leeds-based engineering specialist Renew Holdings boosting its order book by 31% because it was able to provide specialist services across a range of disciplines. HMV saw profits increase by 18% after a move into live events and ticketing, while Nichols plc, makers of Vimto, saw sales rise by nearly 18% on the back of new product launches supported by an award winning TV and multi-media advertising campaign.”

The National Business Awards in partnership with Orange is the premier recognition platform for UK organisations in the private and public sector. It is also the most representative, with entries from start-ups to SMEs to the FTSE 500. Registering a 40% increase in entries for the national campaign in 2010, the standard reflected a greater focus on all aspects of business and more meaningful examples of success in the wake of the global recession, according to Philip Forrest, an independent consultant who has been Chair of Judges for the National Business Awards since the launch in 2001.

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