On the 27th June the ERC welcomed over 100 delegates to The Shard for the 6th State of Small Business Britain Conference, which this year focused on the topical theme of ‘Strengthening Sectors’. The conference, which was chaired this year by Professor Nola Hewitt-Dundas of Queens University Belfast, covered a wide range of issues relating to the role of SMEs in the UK’s sectoral productivity and competitiveness.

Professor Stephen Roper, Director of the ERC, opened the day by presenting the headline findings from the State of Small Business Britain 2019 Report, which presents an overview of key statistics on business confidence in the UK, and an outline of the latest ERC research insights. Stephen showed how SME confidence has declined since the Brexit vote, and at the same time how other measures of entrepreneurial activity have dipped, whilst productivity has remained stagnant. However, he also emphasised that the story is ‘not all doom and gloom’, and that there is considerable sectoral and spatial variation in the UK; a theme which we continued to explore through the rest of the day.

Grace Carey, Head of Industrial Strategy Sector Deals at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) gave a useful overview of the work that government is doing to support SMEs through the Industrial Strategy, highlighting priority areas in management and leadership, the uptake of digital technologies, and getting the business support landscape right. Grace’s presentation was then followed by two presentations focusing in on SMEs in the creative sector. In the first of these, Josh Siepel of the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) explored the value of the creative industries to the UK economy, and set out what is needed to unlock growth in this heterogeneous and ambitious sector. Kevin Palmer then brought the opportunities and challenges faced by creative SMEs vividly to life in a personal and honest account of his experiences over the last 11 years in leading his London-based interaction design studio, Kin.

In the second session of the day we changed focus to look at the theme of driving SME success in the automotive sector. Professor David Bailey started off the session providing an informative overview of trends in this rapidly evolving sector in terms of market trends, new technologies and the broader political context.  Stephen Roper then returned to the stage, this time to present the findings from the ERC’s on-going study on the ‘Mittelstand Mindset’, which is comparing how middle-sized automotive firms in the UK and Germany are responding to digitisation. A lively panel discussion followed, chaired by ERC Deputy Director Lee Hopley, with Archie McPherson CEO of Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), Dolores Sanders of Total Control Pro Limited and Mark Norris of BEIS, focusing on the question of how we can make innovation happen in SMEs. Many important issues were raised, including the need to simplify what is a messy support landscape for SMEs, to invest in management and leadership capabilities, and the value of collaboration and cross-sector working.

In the final afternoon session, the focus turned to the theme of strengthening sectors at the local level. Ben Brabyn, CEO of Level39, a Canary Wharf-based business community supporting fast-growing tech companies was the first to speak, emphasising the value of clustered ecosystems in promoting innovation, and the importance of altruism. Roya Croudace, Director of the Enterprise M3 Growth Hub then gave an overview of the role of Growth Hubs in strengthening sectors at the local level through accelerating networking and collaboration opportunities. Roya also joined the final panel discussion alongside Mark Basnett, Director of Liverpool City Region LEP, Angela Joyce, CEO of Warwickshire College Group and Rebecca MacDonald, Analyst at the Centre for Cities, for a discussion led by the ERC’s Professor Mark Hart on identifying and growing local sector strengths. An engaging discussion followed, highlighting a range of themes, including the value of ‘getting the basics right’ by investing in skills and infrastructure, and the need to extend powers at the local level in order to create environments in which all can flourish. 

All in all, to return to Stephen Roper’s opening observation that things are not all ‘doom and gloom’, the conference proved to be a successful day packed full of useful insights on the future of Small Business Britain.

Dr Vicki Belt, Deputy Director, ERC

Take a look at our picture gallery from the event

Photography credit : Sharron Wallace photography.