Small firms need more understanding

While journalists usually dislike stating the obvious in stories, last week was a notable exception. The item in question quoted research suggesting small firms inhabit a more worrying and burdensome business environment than ever before.

Time spent worrying about business while away from work is up 35% since 2002 while the working week for small and medium-sized enterprises grew by almost 10% in the same time. Sound familiar?

While too few bank-commissioned research projects are worth the paper they’re written on, credit must go to Royal Bank of Scotland’s Living Business survey. Based on interviews with 615 small businesses owners, it identified trends some small brokers will recognise.

According to the survey, Britain’s entrepreneurs spend an average 17 hours per week away from work thinking or worrying about their businesses. Between 2002 and 2005, the average working week for small business owners grew by almost 10% to 55.4 hours. Some 28% of respondents work more than 61 hours per week (up from 10% in 2002) and more than one in seven work more than 70 hours.

In the bursting vein category, 16% identified growing red tape as the biggest source of stress – up from 4% in 2002. With the pre-Budget report falling last Monday, it’s certainly sad that this measure of business lack of confidence doesn’t get the consideration it deserves at Number 11.

Despite the precarious carrot-to-stick ratio, the most common justification given by stressed entrepreneurs will strike a chord – 38% accepted the additional stresses and strains in order to be their own boss.

The survey is an interesting attempt to quantify the issues facing smaller businesses. In our own sector, success for these firms depends on squaring the revenue-generating matters of advice and successful client relationships with increased regulation. Just as firms can’t expect exemption from the Handbook, regulators must not deny some responsibility in helping firms clearly straining to meet their expectations.

Consider also the fact that more than 70% of gross mortgage lending is accounted for by the intermediary channel – well over 145.5bn in 2004. Much of this came through small intermediary firms, underlining the fact that collectively and individually (in terms of client service) small firms’ contribution to the market is too often overlooked. Greater understanding of these firms’ needs should be a new year’s resolution for lenders and regulators.

Lender readers will have to forgive me for ending on a slightly tongue in cheek finding from the survey. The most common source of stress to small businessmen – red tape? No, late payment – up to 24% from 13% in 2002. Tut, tut.