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Supporting SMEs Through COVID-19 and Beyond

Posted on: 18/01/2021

Referred to by some as The Great Disruptor, 2020 presented the world with one of the most challenging years in decades.

Businesses in all sectors and of all sizes and stages have been affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic in one way or another. Many found themselves struggling and in survival mode, having to look for ways to adapt and reassess their business models. Almost overnight it became essential for businesses to change how they operate and deliver their products and services to consumers, who have also had to adapt. Last year saw a surge in digital transformation and online retailing, with many businesses switching from offline to online. In the UK, the Office for National Statistics reported that September sales within non-store retailing were 36.6% higher than in February due to consumers shopping online. It was also reported that more than 85,000 online businesses launched between March and June.

As a dedicated business support provider, we had to reactively respond to the pandemic, adapting the support we provide to SMEs through the services we deliver. For this reason, a timely and significant milestone for us, considering the huge advancements in digital transformations was the launch of Exemplas Connect, our revolutionary digital business support service.

Continuing to provide consultancy and training to businesses throughout 2020, with a shift to more at home and remote working, Ellenbrooke was involved in supporting businesses to access the Cyber Basics Review scheme, as well as continuing to help businesses achieve certifications.

Through our proven track record of public sector contract delivery and our expertise in providing support to ensure UK businesses thrive, we leveraged over £6m of funding to directly benefit SMEs as a result of the pandemic. To help businesses minimise the impact and best support them, this funding was dispersed in the form of grants, one-to-one adviser support, events and much more.

Supporting Businesses to Export

Supporting SMEs and larger-scale businesses with their export strategies and helping them to capitalise on the opportunities the pandemic bought to some, the services delivered by the Department for International Trade (DIT) in the East of England and Yorkshire and Humber regions generated over £2.67bn in export wins. This resulted in the creation of over 950 export jobs.

These figures are impressive considering the many challenges faced by businesses last year, not to mention the added difficulties because of the effects on border control, along with the significant slowdown in the transportation of goods, with many countries having to lockdown on multiple occasions.

A UK food producer doubled its export revenue during lockdown with the help and support of DIT in the East of England. The owner of the company stated "international trade has provided a lifeline during the Coronavirus pandemic. Our export would usually account for 20% of sales, however since April we have been able to increase them to 40%.”

Prioritising Innovation to Unlock Post-COVID Growth

Enterprise Europe Network (now known in the UK as Innovate UK EDGE) has been able to support businesses to capitalise on growth and internalisation opportunities presented to them during a year of change, with some businesses reporting COVID to be the catalyst to encourage their innovation, spur on development and explore new markets.

The COVID response support provided resulted in over 8,500 businesses engaging with the service last year. Also, further investment was secured from Innovate UK to help businesses get their affected innovation plans back on track.

Reflecting on the support received by Enterprise Europe Network in the East of England, the Director of a software company stated “We are extremely satisfied and grateful for the support and coaching provided. The level of experience, knowledge and insight has been invaluable. As a result, we have had a big change in our strategic thinking and direction which has already shown positive impact, and I'm sure will continue to do so.”

Another example demonstrating the positive impact of this support is Active Food Systems (AFS), a scale-up business that diversified and succeeded amidst the pandemic last year. Working collaboratively, the support provided by both EEN and DIT was instrumental in ensuring AFS could stabilise and grow during such difficult times. Read our ScaleUp Index 2020 Round-Up to find out more.

Helping Businesses to Respond, Adapt and Strengthen

The Hertfordshire Growth Hub team handled over 19,279 interactions from businesses via phone, email, live chat and through the website from mid-March, when the UK was put into its first national lockdown, to the end of 2020 – a significant increase in demand. The Growth Hub became a lifeline, helping businesses in crises, as well as supporting many to respond, adapt and strengthen. Over 5,500 businesses were supported by the service in 2020. 

As part of the response to COVID, the Growth Hub launched a Respond, Adapt and Strengthen (RAS) grant. Due to extremely high demand and with a limited amount of funding available to eligible SMEs impacted by the pandemic, the grant was fully subscribed within hours resulting in more than £305k of grant funding being dispersed to SMEs in Hertfordshire.

The Business Manager of a Hertfordshire-based events production company awarded RAS grant funding said that “This support and funding has given our business a lifeline and will ensure the survival of our company.”

The launch and white labelling of Exemplas Connect for the Growth Hub service helped to manage the significant and unexpected increase in demand from SMEs seeking support. The platform, allowing SMEs access to business support how and when they need it most, meant that the service was able to handle a greater number of client interactions.

It is through our experience of over 25 years, coupled with our drive to innovate how we provide business support, that allows us to continue to leverage funding and take advantage of opportunities that we know as a result will provide the best support to SMEs when they need it most.

Now in 2021, the business landscape remains uncertain. At Exemplas, we continue to provide trusted, expert advice to SMEs during these challenging times.

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