UK: Enterprise - For Entrepreneurs, Growth Businesses And Their Advisers, Winter 2011/12 - Breakthrough Business

Last Updated: 16 November 2011
Article by Smith & Williamson


Tips from our expert panel

Every entrepreneur aspires to create a firstrate business, but achieving this is no mean feat. So, how do you make that all-important breakthrough? Enterprise speaks to a leading panel of experts to get their views on how to get your business to the top.

Making the breakthrough

Perhaps unsurprisingly, strong leadership is seen as one of the main ingredients for a business to make the breakthrough, according to our panel. Lara Morgan, founder and CEO of, says: "Becoming world class begins from the outset with the key ingredients being leadership by example and having an established and well-communicated statement of intent – otherwise, I imagine it's a far more painful process."

Stuart Miller, co-founder and CEO of supply chain management company ByBox, illustrates the need to lead by example when he talks about the importance of balancing a winning culture with an institutional humility. He says there should be "a commitment by all parts of the business to perform to the best of their ability, with no chest-puffing, cultural emblems, such as directors' offices or parking spaces".

Steve Gilroy, chief executive of Vistage, a leading membership organisation for chief executives and managing directors, says: "A clear vision and value proposition, understood and worked on by all staff, with regular reminders, updates and reinforcement is essential. You also need a practical set of goals and milestones cascaded throughout the organisation and a commitment to follow through."

Andrew Lester, chairman of Carr- Michael Consulting, focuses on the customer proposition. He says making the breakthrough is about "driving cash and delivering sustainable growth". This involves "strong management of timing, waste, costs, quality and pricing on all customer propositions, as well as an understanding of your customers and both their real and perceived needs".

Barriers to success

Across the board the panel agreed that one of the most common barriers to making the breakthrough is poor leadership. Steve points to the dangers of "a lack of communication, motivation and leadership", with bosses managing and not leading, setting their sights low and settling for 'good enough'. Stuart refers to the "stagnating leader". He says: "Maybe they've run their course. Maybe their strength is the start-up phase and now it's a 'proper' business. Maybe early success has gone to their head and they're now writing and believing their own headlines. Or maybe they just weren't that ambitious after all."

He emphasises the importance of young, ambitious companies having a balanced board, with a strong chairman and finance director to support and challenge the CEO. "You might be the founder of the company, but you should still have to justify your strategy. The CEO shouldn't be allowed to run roughshod over the business," he says.

Lara agrees: "It's all about great leaders who are brave enough to employ brilliance and work with them [these employees] to progress and improve the offering." But Andrew notes that while most business owners strive to hire people like themselves – they shouldn't. He points to the fact that most successful entrepreneurs hire talented operations staff, balancing creativity with logic.

Working 'on' not 'in' the business

The panel had some interesting views on the often-heard advice about working 'on' rather than 'in' the business. Stuart sees it as "a convenient play on words, which is very dangerous". He says: "Forget about working on the business and focus on being firmly in it. Using James Dyson, founder of Dyson, and the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, as examples, he argues that people who are actually in the business lead most world-class companies.

According to Steve Gilroy, having hired the best talent you can afford, you should: "Try not to do the work but inspire, coach and mentor your staff to do it for you," making the most of external forums to share thoughts, concerns and issues. Lara adds: "Remain paranoid of failure and live with the shadow of knowing that neither you nor your business are perfect. If you are complacent, others will overtake you and leave you behind."

Focusing your time

When it comes to where business owners should spend their time in order to make the breakthrough, Steve stresses the need for a clear and compelling value proposition, understood by staff and reflected in all marketing and sales messages, to attract customers and transform them into loyal advocates.

"Build your business and culture around it," he says. "Ensure it's reflected in every aspect of the business and be ruthless with anything that detracts from it."

For Lara it's about culture and people first, while maintaining a clear focus on cash management and profit maximisation. "In the early days, your focus should be on sales," she says. "Later on, when you need to consider lowering costs and maximising profits, invest in export and overseas production if necessary."

Andrew suggests that business owners should limit working in the business to 80% of the working week, with one full day spent on planning and implementing successive growth projects. He advocates growing the capabilities of people, processes and products. "For the business to grow and survive, you need to understand how these areas should develop," he says. And when it comes to people, Stuart's approach is clear: "Recruit people better and brighter than you. Listen to them. Trust them. Support them. Believe them. And finally, fire them if they tell lies."


Profile: Piers Daniell, Fluidata

Nerves of steel aren't a pre-requisite for being a successful entrepreneur, but they certainly help. Piers Daniell, managing director of high-speed internet services company, Fluidata, should know.

After finishing his A Levels and spending two years at Softcat, an entrepreneurial IT company, Piers decided to go it alone and resurrect the IT consultancy business he had first formed at the age of 15. He lived on £300-400 a month for two years – and all on credit cards.

Piers says: "I was £35,000 in debt with no tangible business. I could have declared myself bankrupt but I thought if I don't do this now, I'm going to have to save a lot more to try again in the future." So, armed with the sales skills he had learnt at Softcat, he pushed on, cold calling and trying to drum up business.

"The problem was my business model," he says. "I knew I would need to bring in a lot more business in order to grow. What I needed was a recurring revenue model. Broadband was being rolled out across the country and off the back of this I launched Fluidata in February 2004."

Growing the business

Piers set about writing a business plan and exploring funding options. "I was always careful to leave a third of revenue in the business to grow and reinvest, but if you have good ideas and need scale then you need outside investment. We took on angel investment when the company was turning over £200,000 and still relying on credit cards. But we were able to demonstrate 'proof of concept' to investors, which bettered our negotiating position and allowed us to borrow £150,000. Today, our turnover is £5.1m."

Up until now, growth has been organic as the company follows its principle of "build small and demonstrate success". Strong business processes were established from the start, as it was felt it would be harder to install these as the company grew. Piers also had the experience of doing most of Fluidata's job roles himself. Because of this, he's able to recognise the challenges his employees face, and question and support them more effectively.

"That's definitely a positive to organic growth," explains Piers. "With M&A activity and incoming management, for example, it can be difficult for leaders to understand fully the different layers of the organisation. That's not to say we're not looking at acquisitions. In fact, it's the next step for us. But it's important that we maintain our culture and, above all, our service levels."

Customer experience

Piers was quick to realise that when setting up a business the product didn't have to be unique. "Usually a market is big enough for more than one player," he says. "So, in the early years we were copying others and playing catch up, but now we're focused on developing new technologies and reinventing products to keep the business fresh.

"But fundamental to our business is customer care – and now more so than ever," Piers says. "When it comes to the services we offer, customers are less concerned about cost and more focused on our service offering. It's vital that we continue to meet their expectations.

"Of course, if we acquire a company we won't automatically win the loyalty of our new customers. That will be tricky. But we'll have to work at the relationship and make sure we get it right."


By David Molian

In the last 23 years, we've worked with over 1,200 growth-oriented owner-managers on the Cranfield Business Growth & Development Programme, helping them both to grow their businesses and develop themselves. Over that time they've taught us a great deal about what it takes to become a truly effective leader of an entrepreneurial business.

Work 'on' the business, not 'in' it

Many businesses follow a predictable path. The founder starts as an artisan, 'doing the doing'. As he or she hires more staff the artisan evolves into the hero, routinely solving the everyday problems of the business. This can't continue indefinitely, so the founder makes key appointments to share the managerial load.

Too many heroes then turn into meddlers, unable to resist the urge to interfere in the jobs they're paying others to do. Only a few make it to stage four, the role of strategist, where they find time and space to develop the vision for tomorrow's business, working on the business as much as in it.

Communicate the vision

If you've worked out where you're going and how to get there, it pays to share your vision. A lot of entrepreneurs assume that because that vision is in their heads, it's in the heads of their staff. Unless they're mind readers, it's not. The vision needs to be written down, articulated and then communicated constantly. You can't assume because someone's heard something once, it's etched in their memory.


Managing the everyday ebb and flow of a business is a juggling act, where numerous challenges jostle for attention. Visionary leadership is about identifying the three or four key priorities that will deliver the future vision for the business and sticking to them resolutely.

In his extraordinary ten-year turnaround of ANZ Bank, John McFarlane refused to operate with more than three priorities understood by everyone. Over time the priorities would change, but never more than three. If a corporation with tens of thousands of employees can stick to this discipline, the entrepreneurial business certainly can.

Fit the leadership behaviour to the strategy

The number of winning strategies for an entrepreneurial business trying to dominate its niche is limited. Cost leadership is usually out of the question, which leaves customer intensity (the degree to which you love the customer), innovation leadership and business efficiency.

Problems arise when leadership behaviour and strategy don't match. There's little point in requiring all staff to complete timesheets and account for every second if you're trying to encourage a culture of innovation. Equally, a ruthless focus on efficiency alone is unlikely to foster a climate in which customers feel cherished and valued.

As anyone who's even tried to kick a bad habit knows, behavioural change is difficult. But it's far from impossible. Inside every entrepreneur there's a successful leader waiting to be released!


By Richard Mannion

Is the UK tax system helping to make Britain a competitive and attractive place for growing businesses?

The Government's 'Plan for Growth' includes ambitions to ensure that progress is made towards creating the most competitive tax system in the G20 and making the UK one of the best places in Europe to start, finance and grow a business. So while Government is definitely 'talking the talk', can it 'walk the walk'?

New and growing businesses

Work is currently underway to modernise the way global corporations are taxed, so that the UK is a more attractive location for them. But what about UK-based businesses and, in particular, new and growing businesses?

There have been some encouraging signs.

  • A substantial up-rating in the value of entrepreneurs' relief in the last year or so, which should encourage serial entrepreneurs to invest.
  • A consultation on new proposals that would encourage non-domiciles to invest in UK businesses.

In addition, enterprise investment scheme (EIS) relief has become more attractive for the current tax year and the conditions are due to be relaxed further next year. However, the rules themselves are not simple and the use of EIS as a means of financing growth remains relatively uncommon.

The Office of Tax Simplification (OTS) has reviewed all the tax reliefs in the tax code and issued a small business tax simplification report. It is now looking at the possibility of a new system for taxing the smallest businesses and Government is consulting on merging the administration of income tax and national insurance (NI).

The establishment of the OTS has been encouraging, although there is concern that they are merely 'rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic'. A recent survey published by the Forum of Private Business indicated that the cost of administering tax is now the greatest regulatory burden for small business owners in the UK.

Potential complexities

The UK now has the longest tax code in the world, and all businesses, whether large or small, have to contend with its complexities. In addition they have to self-assess their taxable profits to the satisfaction of HM Revenue & Customs, which polices the system with an intrusive compliance regime that includes penalties for late filing, late payment and errors, backed up by business records checks, task forces and campaigns.

Many business owners have seen their earnings squeezed by the 'temporary' 50% top rate of income tax and the hike in NI. Although the potential tax savings from entrepreneurs' relief have increased significantly, the conditions that have to be met are very tightly drawn, which means a number of deserving cases will fail to qualify.

In summary, the UK's tax system is clearly in need of root and branch reform. It remains to be seen whether the Government has the vision and stamina to do what's necessary to create the most competitive system in the G20.


By Alistair Brew

The Business Growth Fund (BGF) has been created to help bridge the equity gap in the provision of £2m-£10m of growth capital identified back in 2009 by the 'Rowlands Review'. As part of the more recent 'Project Merlin' discussions, five of the largest UK banks – Barclays, HSBC, LloydsTSB, RBS and Standard Chartered – set up the BGF in April 2011. Together, they have committed £2.5bn of capital, which is expected to take 10-15 years to invest.

So, is the BGF really the BFG (big, friendly giant) SMEs are looking for?

How it works

In return for £2m-£10m of equity, the BGF will expect a minority stake of around 20%-40% of qualifying businesses and a board seat – although it will not be involved in the business on a day-to-day operational basis. Instead, the BGF will work in partnership with business owners, supporting them with funding, expertise and through its business networks.

Having already met the BGF's investment criteria and due diligence, it is hoped that businesses will be able to secure additional financial backing from other sources – as well as look more attractive to customers, suppliers, employees and other stakeholders.

Qualifying criteria

The fund is open to established, profitable, UK businesses with a turnover ranging from £5m to £50m and demonstrable growth potential. Start-ups, early stage businesses and turnarounds are not eligible and the fund focuses on providing growth, as opposed to replacement capital.

Businesses from all sectors, excluding financial services and property, are invited to apply. Areas of particular focus include high-tech manufacturing, software and electronics, leisure and tourism, retail, renewable energy and cleantech, healthcare and life sciences, industrial and business services, outsourcing and digital businesses.

Investment process

The BGF will source funding opportunities directly and through intermediaries. An internal investment committee will be involved in each deal from the outset, with due diligence carried out by professional services firms, BGF's in-house team and its network of business partners. The entire process is anticipated to take around three to four months. Where a business is refused funding, early feedback and alternative options will be given.

Autonomous decision-making

The BGF has been set up as an independent, commercial business so Government and banks do not influence investment decisions. Some critics say the BGF should be targeted at smaller firms, where the equity gap is even more evident.


By Sancho Simmonds

With growth in the UK and other Western economies forecast to remain subdued, now may be a good time to look towards Asia and other emerging markets where countries continue to experience growth.

The opportunity exists for UK businesses to take advantage of the current climate by selling goods and services to the developing world. Thanks to advances in technology, communications and logistics, even the smallest businesses can now access international markets, buying and selling their products and services worldwide.

And, with the support of the Government's export enterprise finance guarantee (ExEFG) scheme, now is probably as good a time as any to start looking beyond the UK.

The ExEFG is aimed at small and medium-sized businesses in all sectors with an annual turnover of up to £25m. Export finance facilities of between £25,001 and £1m are available, with the terms of any loan being up to two years for those businesses that qualify.

For some businesses, setting up overseas operations rather than just exporting can be a sensible course. Apart from the more obvious benefits of cost savings and new markets, establishing overseas operations can enable you to attract new talent, facilitate product development and leverage different time zones to enhance operational efficiencies. A route worth considering perhaps?


By Adrian Walton

Recent changes to the EIS rules could spell good news for businesses wishing to spur their growth.

The EIS is a tax-favoured scheme for investors to acquire shares in qualifying trading businesses either directly or through specialist EIS funds.

From 6 April 2012, the annual limit on the aggregate EIS and venture capital trust (VCT) funding for qualifying businesses rises from £2m to £10m. Individuals will be able to invest alongside VCTs and other investors in much larger fundraisings through the EIS, with significant tax breaks.

The number of full-time employees in a qualifying business rises from 50 to 250, and investors will be able to invest in businesses with maximum gross assets of £15m, up from the current level of £7m.

Investors can gain income tax relief of 30% on any qualifying EIS investments made and gains are free from capital gains tax (CGT) following a minimum three-year holding period. Investors looking to benefit from the scheme will be able to invest £1m per annum from April 2012 – a significant sum enabling many to invest in larger, less risky companies.

Taken together with the opportunity to use EIS to defer CGT, it appears that EIS is going mainstream.


By Darren Shirlaw

Entrepreneurial businesses are often punished first when a recession hits, but can be the last to receive an economic uplift as the economy strengthens.

Action for the entrepreneur: understand economic timing

You've surely heard the saying: "First in, last out"? We are often the first to be cut from customer budgets and the last to be brought back in. Being first into a recession and last out requires some specific actions for an entrepreneur's business survival and future growth.

Entrepreneurs must understand economic timing by scanning the media's daily data streams. These help predict market improvement and, at a macroeconomic level, things are already starting to look up. The economic clock suggests we are currently at 8pm, which is described as a hesitant and uneven recovery.

Judging by people's business behaviour, most are still focusing on the word 'hesitant'. 'Uneven' describes the market swings because business confidence is still lacking. 'Recovery' is the third word and although it is certainly hesitant and uneven, it is still recovery.

How global is the recession?

Recently, I spoke to 90 people representing 22 countries and was fascinated to hear their different views on the global economy. For example, Australia and Poland are not in recession and have not been in recession for more than 20 years, while Asian markets continue to be buoyant.

At the other extreme, Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain are having a tough time. From these differences it is easy to see that the world economy is actually quite disparate; some regions are buoyant while others are almost bankrupt. This unevenness is creating the hesitancy that is buffeting the entrepreneur.

The world economy is certainly uneven and this also applies to businesses locally. In the same way that some countries are not in recession while others are having difficulties, at a micro level, some companies are booming while others are on their knees.

Action for the entrepreneur: prepare for growth

Because smaller businesses usually exit a recession last, entrepreneurs must prepare for eventual economic growth and get ahead of the queue. It is the front-runners who will gain the biggest uplift, which will carry them right through the next boom.

There is no point in entrepreneurs pulling the sheets over their heads while waiting for the boom times to return. You can make money in an uneven economy, but you'll need to focus.

A good business, with good sales people and good products will easily make money in this market – and some entrepreneurs are definitely making money. Entrepreneurs are unlikely to exit this recession with the corporates, but getting out after them will enable them to generate more growth. The last thing you want to be is last.


By Guy Rigby

The sale of a business is often the ultimate goal for business owners. It's important to have a succession strategy and a sale is the most obvious and popular route to go down – many entrepreneurs spend years grooming their business to the point where it is ready for sale.

But before you jump in and sell your business at the first, tempting opportunity, think about the long-term consequences and look at all the available options.

Some business owners end up selling too early and giving away too much of the value of their businesses. This may be because they've been working for years but still have significant financial commitments, such as mortgages, school fees or other debts. Or it may simply be because they're worn out or they've lost their passion and want to finally enjoy the fruits of their labour.

Entrepreneurs are generally a selfconfident bunch and think they can easily do the whole thing again. In reality, people are often unable to repeat their initial entrepreneurial success. Not everyone can be a successful serial entrepreneur.

Plan for your succession

Taking time out to consider succession will free you up for a more strategic role, as well as ensuring the business can survive and prosper without you.

Instead of a sale, the future might be about developing the right successor and changing your own role. Consider promoting yourself from chief executive to executive chairman. This could be with a view to becoming non-executive later on. In this way you can become more of a strategist and can run the board, not the business.

Your experience is valuable, so don't just walk away. You'll have a sixth sense about what is and isn't important in your business, so spend time with your successor and let osmosis take its course.

There are several other possibilities (below) that don't involve an outright sale.

Stay as you are

Staying put may not seem like the most exciting option, but if you weigh it up against the alternatives of selling too early and losing potential value, working for someone else or starting a new business from scratch, it may appear far more attractive than you initially thought. And, of course, if you're profitable, growing and have a great management team, then where better to invest your money than in your own business?

Keep it in the family

Consider your family taking over the business. If you're financially secure, you could continue to own all or part of the business, perhaps remaining in a non-executive role. Alternatively, you could improve your financial security by engineering a family buy-out.

Part-sell the business

Consider cashing in some of your chips while remaining in your role and participating in future growth. A partial sale might be to a private equity house, which would take a meaningful stake, giving some of the cash to you and putting some into the business for expansion.

Float the business

This will not be for everyone, but for strong, acquisitive businesses operating in a healthy economic environment, floating the business may be an option. If your shares are sensibly valued, these can be used as a currency (instead of cash) to make further acquisitions and spur your future growth.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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