Building an SME support centre or national agency

For the past 3 years, Exemplas has delivered some 25% of the UK government’s "Business Link" support service for SMEs. We are now able to share that expertise with partners in other parts of the world.

The UK rationale for introducing Business Link

Business Link is the UK Government’s chief vehicle for providing support to SMEs. It is primarily funded by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (formerly the Department of Trade & Industry), supported by a number of other government departments, agencies and local authorities.

The network of Business Link centres, covering all of England and Wales, was created in 1993 in recognition of the fact that SME support was badly fragmented and UK competitiveness was suffering as a result. Today it has developed into one of the world’s leading support structures for the delivery of business development services to SMEs.

In–depth analysis of the network, undertaken in 2003, found that, over a 3 year period, Business Links had generated at the UK national level nearly £1 billion extra business turnover, more than £300 million extra profits, £145 million worth of extra net assets and nearly £400 million of extra exports.

How does Business Link work

Business Link centres employ a professional staff to provide an integrated portfolio of business support services including business start–up, an information service, advice and diagnostics, consultancy, brokerage and training.

At the heart of the Business Link concept is recognition of the fact that SME owners/managers are busy people who will not naturally ask for help or support, even where that support could make a radical difference to the competitiveness of their business. As a result Business Link has set out to make it easy for its clients access business support, through the use of a single recognisable brand, common business support services and a tightly managed regime of quality, in terms of:

  • the volume and range of services provided
  • the competence of trainers and business advisers, and
  • the customer service provided to SME clients and levels of satisfaction.

To make it easier still, all services are accessed through a single local gateway, or "one–stop–shop".

Business Links are managed and funded by central government via Regional Development Agencies, with whom they contract to deliver a certain volume of business services to a high, and agreed, standard of quality.

The 6 essential ingredients of a Business Link

  • A professional highly skilled business information & research service, capable of responding to any business query, as well as undertaking more in–depth research. In addition, they need to be skilled in telephone diagnostics and probing to ensure they have identified key underlying issues;
  • A team of business advisors/diagnosticians who visit client companies, and conduct an analysis of the company using a range of business review and benchmarking tools. Working with the company they create an action plan for growth and competitiveness;
  • Business consultants – some with general business and others with specialist knowhow (eg financial, design, technology, etc) – who work with companies to build their competitiveness and robustness through the delivery of the actions listed in the plan;
  • Business start–up programme, consisting of a tailored blend of awareness raising, business skills training, one–to–one coaching and access to finance, aimed at (a) individuals wishing to start their own business and (b) Owners/Managers, Directors and employees of new business start ups;
  • A coherent programme of workshops and seminars, in all aspects of SME growth from sales, marketing and export through to business strategy, management and workforce development, IT and finance; and
  • A wide range of on line tools, information and templates, with everything from employment contracts to dummy invoices.

Why is this important

Within Europe, SMEs account for 54% of private sector turnover. They dominate many service sectors, particularly hotels, catering, retailing and wholesaling. They are also important in construction and to a lesser extent in manufacturing. In the UK, SMEs provide 58% of employment, falling slightly short of the EU average of 66%. In Italy the SME share of employment is a staggering 79%.

The rise of the SME to this level of importance within Europe is a feature of the last 15 years – the result as much of the shift from manufacturing to services, as of structural changes within companies, such as downsizing and contracting out.

Today, SMEs are uniquely capable of soaking up labour and creating wealth, because they are flexible, responsive and have the capacity to be highly innovative. As such they provide the most sustainable route for creating longer term employment.

What we can offer

We offer a progressive six point range of support services:

  • Introductory workshop – explaining the overall Business Link concept and the ways it can be refined to suit different economic contexts.
  • Feasibility study and agreed KPIs for establishing a Business Link in your country or region.
  • Comparison of your current structure with international best practice.
  • Development of detailed roll–out plan and gaining stakeholder support.
  • Consultancy support to the roll out (eg developing organisational structure, job descriptions and competency framework for staff, initial product suite, staff training & accreditation, client engagement and your growth & sustainability plan).
  • Down stream full knowledge transfer and online support.

We can also offer a "quickstart" methodology to start delivering to your SMEs on Day 1. Exemplas would set up and run a centre, under contract to the government authority and progressively pass over delivery and management to your local team.

Our experience in this area

For the past 3 years, Exemplas has been one of the UK’s largest providers of public funded SME support, through the government’s Business Link programme. We supported over 500,000 SMEs, 35,000 of which were given in–depth support. In addition we helped 10,000 start–up companies, which resulted in the creation of 16,000 new jobs.

Exemplas is therefore well placed to deliver this programme and provide related technical assistance because:

  • Every day we provide support to SMEs in exactly the way that the participants in this programme intend to. This means we have the capacity in house to deliver this programme and our approach will be that of fellow practitioners.
  • We can provide consultant–to–consultant coaching support, based on practical experience of SME clients and focussed on what really works, which means we can ensure rapid learning and real value for money from this programme.
  • We can provide progression and optional extras, including a study visit to the UK, and
  • We can build in longer term sustainability and access to leading edge diagnostic and consultancy products, through wider technical assistance.