Business insight from across the UK

Date: 08-10-2015

Tagged as: ArticleWalesGameplanEngland

 

Sales reps of Britain, I am with you. I am with you in the early morning, in the crowded hotel lobby, desperate for an early check out. I am with you in the motorway tail-back, counting the cones and wondering exactly where the essential works are taking place – because there sure is nothing happening here. I am with you again in the evening, in another hotel, in another town; silently cursing them for screwing the soap into the wall where it is just out of reach. I am with you over the bacon that’s not quite crispy enough, the sandwich that is a little too hard, and the prawn cocktail crisps that are ever so slightly soggy. And – I confess to you – that I love it.

About the author

Declan Curry

Journalist, former BBC business broadcaster and Gameplan Live host.

Declan Curry

EF1759-Declan-Curry-at-a-glance

Thanks to Lloyds Bank, and some of my other clients, I was on the road and on the rails all last week. I will be travelling around Britain for most of the remainder of this year as well.

And it is invigorating.

I listen to businesses across the country tell me what really matters to them. I hear how their business strategies evolved to survive the Great Recession, and allowed them to thrive in the recovery. I discuss their plans to grow their businesses, and create jobs and wealth in their local area. I learn how they’ll make the most of whatever the world throws at them – from the Chinese slowdown, to the strong pound, to the inevitable rise in interest rates.

Lloyds Bank’s Gameplan brings together some of the best local businesses in 15 different parts of England and Wales and asks them to share their plans for growth – and to tell the bank what it can most usefully do to help them achieve those ambitions. Lloyds Bank’s Gameplan identifies the opportunities for future growth, and the challenges we need to solve to put those opportunities within our grasp.

Lots of interesting nuggets emerge from the conversations between those business leaders and entrepreneurs. The economy is growing strongly, though it varies from place to place, and from industry to industry and not everyone is feeling it. There are concerns that the growth might ease off as we head further into autumn and winter; the strong pound is hurting our businesses selling British goods in Europe.

Many people have more cash in their pockets, largely thanks to cheaper food and fuel, but many families still have a lot of debt to repay. So we spend more in the shops but money is still tight.

The vast bulk of companies – so far – plan to reward their workers with pay rises this year. Most of them pledge at least 2 percent more; a few will cough up more than 4 percent. For certain hotspots in business where skills are in really short supply, the pay rises will be even greater.

Most firms plan big investments in new equipment and processes, to develop new products or services. And most of them expect to hire new workers.

Some factors are specific to that local area.

In Bristol, businesses in the South West of England say they’re at a disadvantage because poor local roads in Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset make it harder to get goods to market, and to get workers and customers to their place of business. But in Woburn Abbey, few of the businesses gathered from Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Northamptonshire mention roads as an issue.

In Liverpool, it is the railways that cause controversy, with some bosses wondering if the billions earmarked for the high speed line from London through Birmingham to the north of England and Scotland – HS2 – might be better spent improving services from Liverpool to Manchester, to Leeds, and to Newcastle and Hull – the so-called HS3 (though they wonder how high the "H" would actually be in this case).

And then there were the issues that everyone talks about, in every location. Like skills. And skills. And, oh, did I mention skills?

I have been a journalist for more than 20 years. In every one of those years, I have heard business leaders say that there is a skills crisis, it is of critical importance and something must be done to solve it. This year, they’re saying it again.

But at the Gameplan events, I heard more. More businesses have apprentice schemes – and they see it as an essential investment, not a cost. If a worker walks out the door to a rival, taking the skills you paid for with them – that’s the cost of doing business. They say the long-term benefit of a better skilled pool of workers will outweigh the short-term expense.

Smaller businesses, without the human resources capabilities of larger ones, talk about joint schemes, and sharing apprentices among them. Bigger firms boast of reaching down their supply chain to help their smaller partner firms invest more in training.

“Lloyds Bank’s Gameplan brings together some of the best local businesses in 15 different parts of England and Wales and asks them to share their plans for growth”

Some business leaders even lift the telephone to call their local schools, and ask – how can we help you get the next generation ready for work? The schools – keen for work experience schemes and advice on careers – respond with delight. Partnership is more productive than criticism.

And – all of a sudden – everyone’s talking about productivity. Wise old economic owls have been hooting about it for years, but now it is the cause de jour; this year’s crisis.

The increases in business investment – already scheduled by most of the companies at Gameplan – will make a difference. The latest economic statistics suggest improvement is already happening.

But we need to improve our skills still further, and keep improving them throughout our working lives. And we need to ask why we are brilliant at innovation and invention, but not so adept at turning this brilliance into commercial products and services that customers want to buy. Again, partnership is essential – this time between business and universities.

We already know how to work harder; we’ve been doing that for years. We’ve also got to work smarter. And individual businesses have to step up and help solve the issues of skills and productivity. If you’re interested in long-term, sustainable growth – it’s not good enough any more to say it’s someone else’s problem.

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