Small businesses increasingly bullish about growth prospects, says Albion Ventures

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Some 62 per cent of small to medium sized UK firms have ambition to grow dramatically or moderately in the next two years, up from 59 per cent in 2013, according to a report by Albion Ventures.

Only three per cent think they will shrink or wind down.
Businesses in the North-West are most confident about the future, with 83 per cent anticipating growth over the next two years, closely followed by London with 81 per cent of businesses expecting their businesses to grow.  East Anglian businesses are the least optimistic with 39 per cent anticipating growth. 
On a sector basis, production businesses report the highest levels of confidence with 83 per cent of them expecting growth, which bodes well for an industrial revival.
One of the key findings from the second Albion Growth Report, which is designed to shed light on the factors that both create and impede growth among UK SMEs, is the emergence of ‘threshold’ companies, with turnovers between GBP500,000 and GBP1 million. These companies are on the cusp of changing from start-ups and sole traders to established companies.  Threshold firms are more likely to seek finance for growth than other sizes of SMEs (68 per cent compared to an average of 41 per cent) and to do so successfully.  They are also far more willing to give up equity for hands-on support from investors such as private equity and venture capital groups compared to other firms (22 per cent versus an average of six per cent). 
Threshold businesses are also more likely to grow their headcount (55 per cent compared to 33 per cent) but find it more difficult to secure skilled staff (30 per cent versus an average of 18 per cent).  This is reflected in their willingness to train skilled staff compared to other SMEs.  
Optimism about future growth is further underlined by the fact that a third of businesses plan to raise finance in the next 12 months.  Of these 27 per cent are targeting capital for business development and 23 per cent looking to expand their premises, both represent increases from last year.  There has been a 25 per cent fall in the number of firms looking for finance solely to fund working capital, suggesting that ambitions are rising. 
Compared to last year, the proportion of firms using borrowing or funding through bank loans and overdrafts fell significantly from 76 per cent in 2013 to 62 per cent so far in 2014.  Firms have also relied less on asset-based leasing, invoice discounting and credit cards.  
Stronger business confidence is also reflected in recruitment intentions with a third (33 per cent) of firms planning to increase headcount compared to just 2 per cent that are looking to decrease it. 
According to the report, tax incentives to boost the take-up of apprenticeships in the UK’s workforce are also beginning to take effect, suggesting that the strong jobs performance underpinning this recovery is set to continue: while only a minority (12 per cent) of firms surveyed have an apprenticeship scheme in place, 23 per cent are considering launching one in the future.  The highest take-up of apprenticeships is in the East Midlands, where one in four firms has a scheme in place.
This years’ report reaffirm the division between optimistic and pessimistic companies, showing very different outlooks of both the UK economy and their firm’s own prospects for success.  This year, 70 per cent of optimists anticipate growth over the next two years compared to just 37 per cent of pessimists.  One in ten optimists (10 per cent) had successfully raised finance compared to just two per cent of pessimists.  Optimists are far more likely to identify mentoring schemes, a lack of management expertise and the scale of management ambition as key challenges while pessimists are far more likely to blame regulation, workers’ productivity and red tape while overestimating their management abilities.  Significantly, three times as many optimists (14 per cent) run apprenticeship schemes as pessimists (four per cent), of which almost three quarters (69 per cent) say they would not consider running a scheme in the future.
While red tape remains the largest single barrier to growth, concerns over managing cash flows is a close second.  Interestingly, this is seen as a problem of success rather than failure, with cash-hungry sectors such as production both more optimistic about the implications of growth are more concerned about the implications of growth on their short term funding than other industries.  Regulatory change and finding skilled staff were the third and fourth biggest challenges respectively. Despite the continued focus on a lack of bank lending to SMEs, access to finance is only fifth on SMEs’ list of concerns.
Patrick Reeve, managing partner at Albion Ventures, says: “The evidence from this year’s Albion Growth Report points to a growing sense of confidence among UK SMEs.  The next 12 months promise more jobs created, improved productivity and a stronger appetite for raising finance to support growth as opposed to survival. 
“What’s particularly striking about this year’s report is the emergence of so-called threshold businesses, which are on the cusp of blossoming from start-up to established business. Threshold businesses have tremendous potential to drive forward the UK’s economy in the years ahead but face serious challenges: for them, cash is tight and they need finance for growth; they value skilled staff but find it difficult to recruit them.  Recognising their own weakness and vulnerability they are much more likely to give up equity for hands-on support.” 
Emran Mian, director of Social Market Foundation, says: “While growth is back, there are some important puzzles about its character and this report provides valuable clues. For example, growth expectations are strong across many regions and sectors, belying the alarmism of those who suggest that we are in a solely consumption-led recovery focused on London and the South East. 
“While the role of bank finance is diminishing it is still the largest source of capital by far and a continued focus on efficient supply and competition in this sector is vital.  The big question is how to enable these businesses to make the most of the opportunities that they see ahead of them.”

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