Now that chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown has confirmed the Government's commitment to joining a successful single currency, attention is focusing on what, exactly, business needs to do to get ready. In his announcement to the House of Commons, and again in a speech to the CBI's annual conference in November, the chancellor urged businesses to intensify their preparations for the euro and cited Siemens, Daimler-Benz, NatWest and Marks & Spencer as examples of companies whose preparations are already well-advanced. There is, however, a danger that small and medium-sized businesses, comforted by near certainty of no formal introduction of the single currency in the UK this side of a general election, will now move single currency preparations down, rather than up, their agenda.
'My initial concern is that small businesses will go back to sleep,' admits Grant Phillips, communications director of Barclays business banking euro programme. It is very important that they don't, he says. Not only is 50% of British trade with Europe, but over 40% of small and medium-sized businesses now export their products. Unfortunately, many SMEs are only just beginning to think about what to do about the year 2000 problem, let alone the euro.
Barclays has been attempting to explain what the euro will mean for SMEs through a series of conferences. These are necessary because there are not one, but two, euro deadlines to worry about, says Phillips: 'One is five years away but the other is for those businesses, which includes many small businesses, which will have to deal with the euro from 1 January 1999 - less than 300 working days away.' And Phillips is also worried that businesses are seriously underestimating preparation time. A recent Barclays survey showed that nearly three-quarters of businesses thought it would only take six months to gear up for the single currency - and just under half thought it would take less than three months.
Phillips' concerns are shared by Robert Muir, finance director of E P Barrus, importers and distributors of engine-driven products. E P Barrus' preparations are well-advanced, but Muir feels that 'other smaller companies are not taking on board the full implications of the impact of the euro on their business'. He feels the Government is making the right noises about informing companies on detailed preparations, but warns against a continuation of the 'airy fairy waffle' coming from politicians.
Only when the Government starts to explain exactly what needs to be done to prepare for the euro, he says, will SMEs start to think beyond their immediate horizons.