As the owner of a small business, and one catering to SMEs, I often feel that we get a rough deal. One of the major problems facing the SME community is that of late payments, with a whopping £26.3bn owed by larger businesses to small firms in the private sector. The result is an estimated 50,000 businesses going bust every year, and costing the economy around £2.5bn a year.
A large part of the problem is that many SMEs are reluctant to push their larger clients for payment, at the risk of losing future contracts. So, small businesses are forced to wait an average of 72 days for their large clients to settle the bill.
Basically, it’s bullying. But all is not lost. The UK Government have announced the appointment of a Small Business Commissioner – someone who will fight our corner and tackle late payments.
As it stands, our Commissioner will have somewhat limited authority, without the power to issue fines for persistent late payers. So whoever takes on the role will have to be a big personality with a lot of experience. We need someone who will be taken seriously by big business but that also understands our plight.
So, where are we to find someone that fits the bill? I’ve been mulling over some potential candidates and come to a few conclusions.
Mike Ashley is exactly the sort of person we don’t need fighting our corner. For starters, he might want to start an actual fight. And given that Sports Direct’s chairman Keith Hellawell admitted that the firm withheld bills to suppliers as a ‘bargaining chip’, it’s probable the company’s founder wouldn’t be too bothered by the idea of small firms suffering at the hand of big business. Besides, Ashley’s recent and very public reputation-battering at the hands of MPs would hardly bode well for his influence in the corridors of power.
Alan Sugar certainly has an entrepreneurial spirit and a big personality. Not only did he actually build his business from scratch, Sugar is also already a political advisor, meaning he has valuable experience in policy-making.
Moreover, Sugar is not afraid to stand up for businesses, regardless of public sentiment. Sugar recently argued that Ed Miliband and his former campaign leader, the current Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, were anti-business. Even if you disagree with him, Alan Sugar certainly isn’t scared of standing up for himself, a trait all SME owners understand the importance of.
But Sugar isn’t exactly known for his diplomacy or tact, which makes him risky. The last thing SMEs need is for their representative to be discredited by a PR crisis.
OK, it’s a long shot. But Richard Branson is the aspirational figure for small and start-up businesses.
Not only is his name synonymous with entrepreneurship, Branson has repeatedly urged the Government to do more to help SMEs in the UK, arguing recently that the Government should do more to encourage banks to lend to businesses.
Branson is unquestionably au fait with the issues and sees supporting UK businesses as a long-term game, but he has his fingers in a lot of pies, would he have enough time to fight this particular battle?
Former Management Today 35 Under 35-er Michelle Mone founded successful lingerie brand Ultimo in 1996. Having sold the majority of her stake in November 2014, she has since gone on to become a peer in the House of Lords and led a well-received review into entrepreneurship and small businesses under Iain Duncan Smith. Undoubtedly, she is already familiar with the issues faced by small business, including that of late payments.
Unfortunately…she’s just announced plans to retire from the business world in three years’ time. As the issue of late payments unfortunately isn’t likely to get fixed any time soon, that could be a bit of a problem.
It seems clear that, if they’re anything like as choosey as I am, it may take some time for the Government to find the perfect candidate. In the meantime, I and other SME owners will have to rely on our own solutions to the late payment problem.
Alex Fenton is CEO and founder of alternative finance company GapCap.
Image credit: D@LY3D/ Flickr