Mentors to give firms helping hand

FIVE Yorkshire entrepreneurs have joined forces to set up a mentoring scheme for companies.

The SREG group, led by Silver Cross babycare products entrepreneur Alan Halsall, will provide free and candid advice and support for firms based in Skipton and Ripon, or whose owners live there.

The group's other founder members include Jim Bedford, chairman of Wath Group, which makes electronic equipment and products for the cleaning industry; Alex Robinson, a commercial director at Skipton Building Society; Roger Tempest, owner of the 400-year-old Broughton Hall and founder of Rural Solutions, the business park on the 3,000-acre estate on the edge of Skipton, and Natasha Price, marketing partner for accountants and business advisers EuraAuditUK.

It has recruited more than 30 mentors, who are giving their time for free. So far they have helped entrepreneurs including a search engine optimisation expert and a clinical hypnotherapist but they want to make more contacts next year.

Mr Halsall, who turned around Silver Cross and built it up to a 20m turnover business, said he wanted to help because a combination of the gloomy economic climate and the wave of austerity measures had changed the way in which the region's small firms operated.

"We have to encourage people in this country. You cannot rely on the State like you used to. There should be a change of culture. If you have the confidence you would be amazed at what you can achieve."

The group has some similarities to television's Dragons' Den but exists primarily to provide mentoring and support. While its members may take a stake in one of the businesses receiving help, it is not a pre-requisite of their involvement. They will provide advice for owners of small businesses who "live, sleep and eat" their enterprise and can find it hard to take a detached view of problems. Mr Halsall said that when companies find life difficult the solutions can often be simple.

"We are in an agricultural area not a city area, but most problems are the same, for example HR issues, financial issues, marketing and managerial issues. It is nice to talk to somebody who does not have an agenda. They can tell you as they see it and it does not have to be polite."

The patch in which SREG will operate covers 900 square miles, stretching across the Pennine dales of North Yorkshire and a large part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. It also covers parts of Settle, Sutton-in-Craven, Bentham, Masham, Pateley Bridge and Grassington, and has signed up Julian Smith, the Conservative MP for Skipton and Ripon whose seat covers this area, as its honorary chairman.

Before entering Parliament Mr Smith was a businessman, having set up executive recruitment firm Arq International in the front room of his flat in 1999.

He said: "I know just how challenging it can be when you start a business and don't know where to turn to for advice. I believe that by sharing advice and experience the experienced mentors, who are giving their time for free to the group, will make a real difference to businesses of all shapes and sizes across Skipton and Ripon."

Mentors will provide support, contacts and guidance to help budding entrepreneurs grow their firms.

People seeking help fill in a form briefly describing the help they want. It will be kept simple because Mr Halsall says he detests bureaucracy. A mentor with the relevant skills will be chosen. The group does not provide finance directly but it can put businesses in touch with potential funders.

Mr Halsall said his own efforts with Silver Cross had taught him several lessons.

"People said it was not a good time to set up a business (when I started) but I said 'rubbish'. I recognised it was a good brand and it had a good product. It is a private company so you can nurture it and do it properly.

"You have to have enthusiasm. I do not worry too much about the problems because I had the enthusiasm and the glass has got to be half-full."

He outlined one other vital ingredient: "Empathy is a very important skill. If you cannot empathise with your staff, your suppliers and your customers you will be in trouble."

Turning around Silver Cross

Alan Halsall bought Silver Cross out of administration nine years ago and turned it into a 20m turnover business.

Today he is chairman of the upmarket firm, which has 50 staff. It is based in Broughton in Skipton and sells a range of equipment for babies, including pushchairs, prams, toys, gifts and car seats.

Its origins go back to 1877, when engineer and inventor William Wilson began designing ways of transporting babies. He was based at Silver Cross Street in Hunslet, Leeds.

Mr Halsall said he and his fellow mentors had wanted to help businesses because many of them were part of the "baby boomers" generation who, for much of their adult life, had seen increases in employment and standards of living.