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The Entrepreneurial Exchange

Community Spirit As Businesses Put On A United Front

Michelle Rodger
A CURIOUS phenomenon is emerging from the lengthy shadows of the credit crunch: businesses are beginning to recognise the opportunities in helping each other trade their way through the current economic challenges and it's an unforeseen silver lining that's bringing out the best in our organisations.
Major corporations and SMEs alike are facing one of the most difficult trading periods in living memory and, despite efforts at Government level to help business owners survive the looming recession, it will take time for these changes to take effect and filter down to the organisations that need it most.

So while politicians are focused on he-said she-said cocktail conversations that may or may not have happened on a holiday yacht (Nero, fiddlers and Rome leap to mind), the business network has decided to take matters into its own collective hands, working to find more immediate solutions to their own financial crises.

BT, Royal Mail and Asda, to name but a few, are all engaging with small businesses, a positive sign that some corporates see this as a profitable and growing market. But it's really about more than just increasing their own sales; it's a genuine recognition of the value to be leveraged from working in partnership and sharing best practice with the vast army of SMEs that underpin the UK economy.

Training is one cost centre that is usually slashed as soon as cash flow experiences a squeeze, as is the cost of membership of organisations such as Chambers of Commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses, even the Entrepreneurial Exchange. At a time like this, these networking organisations expect the normal reaction from their members, which is to batten down the hatches and cut any "luxury" costs. But a more entrepreneurial approach seems to be gripping our businessmen and women, and the opposite appears to be the case.

According to both Scottish Chambers of Commerce and the FSB there has been an increase in new members and renewals over the past few months, a fact mirrored by a surge in member turnout at networking events organised by the Entrepreneurial Exchange.

While many young or start-up firms haven't experienced a recession before, Stewart Milne is on recession number three. The house builder shared his key tactics with Entrepreneurial Exchange members, some of whom were also house builders and competitors, at a recent event. His advice was simple but effective: examine every cost, every line on the P&L, collect cash rigorously and keep a tight control on head count.

Asda is leading the way in Scotland, reversing the notion that major supermarkets and retailers are putting the squeeze on their small suppliers. Instead, Asda is keen on greater local sourcing of products and is actually working to shorten the supply chain, ensuring that more local retailers can feed into that chain, ultimately cutting down on the costs of taking their goods to market.

More than 1,000 businesses a day are flocking to join BT Tradespace, a free social business network where you can interact with other organisations and shoppers, seek advice, advertise a business or review companies you use.

BT bosses say it's critical that big businesses, along with Government and independent organisations, take the initiative to help small businesses make the right decisions so they continue to compete and thrive in more challenging times. We all know the most powerful advice can often come from others running businesses themselves and, according to Bill Murphy, managing director, BT Business, the challenge for us all is to encourage owner-managers to access that advice, as well as offering it themselves.

Which is why BT Business has launched its own small business mentoring scheme. Murphy and his colleagues will be working as mentors to a number of UK businesses to help them over the next year. From this pilot, BT intends to extend the concept right across the company.

Royal Mail has also recognised the value in tapping into the vast knowledge held in companies across the country and has enlisted 100 of the UK's brightest success stories to share their experiences and give advice through a new online service.

It's part of their nationwide "Partner for Growth" campaign. A specially designed micro site asks businesses to complete a short questionnaire and then analyses the information to create a tailored growth pack containing advice, relevant product and service recommendations, as well as inspiring case studies from other organisations of a similar size and type to theirs.

So has competition become less of a critical success factor than before? Is squeezing market share from your rivals fundamentally wrong for the long term? Or have we learned a little from the celebrity chef brigade, that instead of fighting to carve up market share of a small cake, we should actually be working together to bake a bigger one?

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