LEP Column: Sending out right signals to look after small businesses

One of my first memories is taking apart my Auntie Anna’s old valve radio then putting it all back together.

Eric Hawthorn: Having one point of contact that could point me in the right direction towards the right support for my business would have helped me avoid numerous pitfalls. Picture Bruce Rollinson

The radio never worked again but this early fascination with electronics has now, many years later, become a thriving international business – Radio Design.

I started Radio Design in my bedroom in 2007.

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I’d had a 25-year career as a radio frequency engineer, working for major international mobile communications firms – including, latterly, Filtronic in Bradford.

A company restructure gave me the kick in the pants to go it alone, but starting my own firm was a very different proposition from the business world I’d previously known.

I knew I had a great idea for a product with global market potential. I had contacts from my time at Filtronic, and finance in place.

What I wish I’d had though, in those early days, was an impartial sounding board to help me get the right advice to take my business in the direction I wanted it to go.

It’s because of this experience of starting and growing my own business that I became involved with the LEP, and why I’m still committed to its agenda four years later.

The LEP can fulfil this “honest broker” role in a way that other organisations can’t.

Supporting growing businesses is at the heart of our plan to transform the region’s economy but, aside from our business funding programmes and support around apprenticeships and skills that isn’t currently provided elsewhere, we don’t actually deliver services ourselves.

This – plus the fact that the LEP is led by businesspeople for businesspeople – means that we’re driven by the needs of businesses, not by targets, and can help SMEs access the support they really need to grow.

We now have the resources to play this role more fully.

Although we began as a public-private partnership operating mainly on goodwill, we now have close to £2bn devolved funding to invest in the region.

Much of this is committed to large-scale transport, housing and regeneration projects that will create the environment for growth, but what I’m most excited about is our new growth service to help small businesses develop and expand.

SMEs are the backbone of the region’s economy.

There are over 100,000 in the Leeds City Region, making up 99 per cent of our business community.

If they don’t grow, our economy won’t grow which is why the LEP is focused on helping those firms with the ambition and capability for rapid growth find the right support and funding to unlock that potential.

The growth service takes our work to another level. Over the next year we aim to provide intensive support for 500 SMEs across the City Region and engage with around 20,000 over the next five years.

As well as our impartiality, the LEP has access to a large network of business support partners, including local providers and national government services.

We will be working with these partners to ensure that there is no wrong door for SMEs looking to grow – whichever organisation they approach, they will receive straightforward advice about the other support that could help them and a consistent, high quality service.

Radio Design has seen exponential growth over the past eight years, going from a team of 11 in Shipley to a global firm employing close to 300 people worldwide.

I’ve taken advantage of support from organisations such as UKTI, the Chamber and universities along the way to support that growth trajectory.

But if an organisation such as the LEP had been around I would have grown even more quickly.

Having one point of contact that could point me in the right direction towards the right support for my business circumstances would have helped me avoid numerous pitfalls and dead ends, and perhaps opened my eyes to other growth opportunities.

My message to small businesses with big growth ambitions is simple: if you want to grow and develop your business in Leeds City Region, talk to the LEP.

If we can’t help you directly, we can put you in contact with the people who can and from my experience as a small, growing business those contacts are often the missing piece of the puzzle.

Find out more at the-lep.com/business

The LEP supports small businesses in several ways:

Business growth – launching in July, the LEP growth service will help growing SMEs find the right support and funding to unlock their potential.

Skills – support to help businesses find the right training and skills development for their employees and grant funding.

Business finance – grant and loan funding of £10,000-£1m to help businesses expand and create jobs.

Apprenticeships – free, independent support for SMEs to take on an apprentice.

Broadband and digital skills – support to help SMEs to do better business online and grants to improve speeds.