Bankers should head to SME coal face for a tough lesson

THE "DNA of an entrepreneur" study from specialist insurer Hiscox should be mandatory reading for those in government and the banks (the two of which can often be indistinguishable).

The report highlights the efforts made by small businesses to just keep on going, despite the best efforts of the economy and the lending community.

To highlight but a few of the sacrifices made. The report states that 20 per cent of small business owners have invested an average 17,030 of their own savings to keep their businesses afloat (and paying taxes), or a total of 16 billion throughout 2009. In addition, 34 per cent have slashed their own salaries to reduce overheads, while only 10 per cent have cut the salaries of their senior employees. This has all been done against a backdrop of significantly increased working hours and stress levels.

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The report says: "SME bosses have been the unsung heroes of the recession. They have made enormous sacrifices and taken significant personal and financial risks to pull their businesses through the last two years."

So let us heave a slow and resigned sigh at the level of disinterest in the small business sector, a massively important part of UK society and its economy. We can then nod in agreement with those that reject this strategy as a way out of our current malaise.

While certain politicians flaunt their ignorance and indeed disrespect for business, in a more insidious way, so too do the banks continue to demonstrate similar tendencies. Ask pretty well any SME about their experience with lenders, particularly over the past two years, and they will happily dispel the myths of the banks' own propaganda.

Being an entrepreneur of sorts, I am duty-bound to offer a way through, around, over or under for policy-makers and bankers to improve their understanding of business. So here are some random suggestions:

Bankers should stop partaking of expensive training courses and spend a year working in a small business or charity. This will expose them to the real challenge of planning, marketing, sales, cashflow, HR and so on. This experience can only be beneficial when dealing with other businesses later on, particularly if those taking part are paid a salary in line with those seen in the small business sector.

Those lower down the banks' food chain can go on a little placement with an SME, perhaps for one month. This will go some way to shedding light on the challenge. Perhaps this is something that all government ministers with a portfolio relating to business and enterprise could do before getting behind their desks.

Corporately (that is banks and government departments), try talking and listening to groups of small businesses. Policy-makers should not rely solely on a chat with the Chambers of Commerce and Federation of Small Businesses – much as these organisations do a great job, they do not represent all small businesses.

Banks and policy-makers should also not rely on surveys of sectors or customers. They should regularly convene groups of companies together in an informal environment and discuss issues of difference and shared goals. Compared to what is spent on sledgehammer advertising campaigns, this could have a wonderful return on investment.

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While politicians of all persuasions seem to have developed a penchant for co-opting their favourite business gurus and entrepreneurs, this strategy rarely seems to work. It's a bit like grafting the heart of a mouse on to the side of a crazed mutant elephant (my apologies to those most noble of mammals).

The little beating heart will not sustain the beast and will eventually wither and drop off. Meanwhile, the elephant, even though it has no heart continues to rumble on. No, the only way to inject some understanding and business sense into governments and the banks is to throw them into an arena full of little beating hearts – in other words, get out there and really spend time with SMEs.

It will be hard and uncomfortable, but bankers and policy-makers with the necessary passion and commitment will undoubtedly emerge refreshed and sustained in the long term.

• Michael Groves is an environmental professional and entrepreneur.