On the 21st June the ERC welcomed over 100 delegates to The Shard for our fifth State of Small Business Britain Conference, which this year had a focus on the topical theme of ‘Productivity and Place’.

Through a lively mix of presentations and discussions, the conference covered a range of issues affecting the productivity of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and the links between location and business performance. On the day the ERC also launched findings from our new major survey on micro-businesses in the UK, as well as releasing new data from the 2018 UK Local Growth Dashboard.

The conference was chaired by Lucy Armstrong, Chair of the ERC’s Steering Group, who opened the event by highlighting the mission of the ERC to provide robust data and insights on SMEs that can be used by policy makers to make a difference in the real world.

Professor Stephen Roper, Director of the ERC, then took to stage to bring this mission to life, presenting for the first time the headline findings from the ground-breaking ‘Micro-business Britain’ survey. This survey gives new insights into micro-businesses (firms with between one and nine employees), a group that are often neglected in official business surveys. The presentation explored what influences productivity amongst the micro-business population, emphasising in particular the benefits of the adoption of digital technologies.

Stephen’s presentation was complemented by the second speaker of the day, Rannia Leontaridi OBE, Director of Business Growth at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Rannia gave an overview of evidence on the UK’s productivity performance and outlined what government is doing, alongside partners, to tackle the so-called ‘long tail’ of low productivity firms.

The challenges involved in making productivity improvements at firm level were then brought to life by Dan Severn, Operations Director at DM Orthotics, a Cornwall-based SME and manufacturer of medical and sports performance products. Dan spoke vividly about the journey the company has been on to turn around inefficient manufacturing processes, and the crucial support they needed by external experts to identify problems and solutions. He also highlighted the tension that exists for SMEs between job creation and productivity – a theme that re-emerged in discussion through the rest of the day.

The second half of the morning session moved on to look at spatial dimensions of productivity, and explored some initiatives taking place at local level. Professor Mark Hart opened the session with a presentation of key findings from the latest UK Local Growth Dashboard, which presents a useful set of business growth metrics for start-ups and existing firms broken down by geographical area. The presentation highlighted the local variation that exists in the UK in terms of SME growth dynamics and also pointed to the poor correlation that exists between jobs growth and productivity gains.

Andy Lee of NatWest took to the stage next to talk about a new approach to delivering business support at the local level in the West Midlands, focusing on disadvantaged migrant entrepreneurs. The programme involves a collaboration between NatWest, the Centre for Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship at Birmingham University, the GBSLEP Growth Hub and Citizens UK. A key theme of Andy’s presentation was the importance of building trust within communities and the benefits of partnership working. One of the entrepreneurs involved in the programme, Tsitsi Mudokwani, CEO of Sister’s Care Services, then spoke powerfully about her experiences as a migrant setting up a new business in the UK, and the difference that targeted advice and guidance can make.

Andy and Tsitsi were then joined in a panel discussion by Ben Still, Managing Director of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, and Irene Graham, CEO of the ScaleUp Institute to explore the role of SMEs in local economic growth. Key themes raised were the importance of face-to-face contact, engagement and relationships for SMEs, the need for targeted, segmented business support and provision of local access points. The valuable role played by Growth Hubs was also emphasised, and panellists reflected on the need for a long-term focus and greater investment in SME support.

After a networking lunch we began the afternoon session with  keynote presentation by Tony Danker, CEO of Be the Business. 

Tony outlined the mission of this newly-formed organisation to build a ‘productivity movement’ in the UK, explaining the rationale for their decision to focus activity particularly on the SME community. Tony echoed the earlier points made about the invaluable role of effective collaboration between business support organisations and also between large and small businesses.



The final session of the day was a thought-provoking panel discussion focusing on the important theme of Brexit and the associated challenges and opportunities for SMEs. The panellists were Adam Marshall of the British Chambers of Commerce, Sonali Parekh of the Federation of Small Business, Matthew Fell of the CBI and Professor Philip McCann of the ESRC-funded Productivity Insights Network. The discussion touched on a range of themes, but prominent points included the complexity of implications that Brexit has for SMEs and the impact this is having on mindsets, the need for a clear focus on priorities and practicalities in particular around exporting and skills strategy, and how to find effective ways of engaging SMEs on productivity when the term itself tends to ‘switch off’ many business leaders. 

After some excellent questions from conference delegates, Professor Stephen Roper rounded off the day by setting out some of the new research the ERC have planned for the coming months.  This research will explore further many of the questions raised during the conference, and further enhance knowledge about the state of small business Britain.




Take a look at our picture gallery from the event.