With support for small and medium-sized enterprises being made a key part of Durham County Council’s economic strategy, Peter Barron talks to some of the micro businesses making their mark in the south of the county.

Redcoat Apparel

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During a proud military career which included service in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, Richard Smith always dreamed of being his own boss when he left the forces.

Brought up in Shildon, County Durham, he’d joined up in 2001, carrying out a specialist role as a forward observer with the Royal Artillery.

When he left the Army 10 years later, Richard pursued a career in the security industry, working for the American government in the Middle East. It wasn’t until he returned home to the North-East three years later and became a sales advisor with a military equipment company on Teesside that his ‘issues’ were exposed.

Richard’s wife, Clare, could see something wasn’t right. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a new, more personal battle began.

“Many soldiers, when they come out of the Army, feel lost and don’t know what to do,” Richard says. “It causes stress and frustration – unless you can find your passion.”

Luckily, Richard discovered his passion and today is playing his part in the growth of small businesses across County Durham.

Richard runs Redcoat Apparel, a popular brand of clothing and accessories with a military history theme. T-shirts, hoodies, baseball caps and flags are part of the range and customers include the actor Tom Hardy.

“I’d noticed a spike in US brands, but no-one was doing it en masse within the veteran community with a British stamp on it,” says Richard. “We set out to fill that gap and it’s going really well.”

Richard is quick to acknowledge the support he’s had from Business Durham – the economic development arm of Durham County Council.

When Redcoat Apparel was launched, Business Durham helped Richard to find offices on Shildon’s Furnace Industrial Estate.

“I’d always fancied being my own boss but didn’t know how,” he says. “Business Durham was helpful from the start. They’d pop in for a brew and showed real interest in the brand.”

Richard briefly relocated to a shop with a coffee bar, but when the move proved to be a mistake, he was welcomed back to the industrial estate with open arms.

“They showed us great flexibility when we needed help,” he says. “There’s this sense that they’re looking out for us, always pointing us in the right direction for business support.”

Richard and Clare have now taken the strategic decision not to take any funds out of the business for three years to give it the best chance to grow in this country, while also finalising plans to expand Redcoat Apparel into markets in America, Australia and New Zealand.

From being in that dark place a few years ago, Richard Smith is looking ahead to an increasingly bright future, and it is the kind of success story that makes Anne Ellwood’s job so worthwhile.

Shildon Business Centre

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Originally from Esh Winning, Anne has lived in County Durham all her life, and has clocked up 22 years with Durham County Council.

She joined Business Durham six years ago and, as property manager for the south, her priority is finding the right accommodation for a myriad fledgling business.

Anne cites the recent redesign of Shildon Business Centre as being symbolic of the rise in fortunes of the small business sector in South Durham. Over the past year, 13 new offices – specifically designed for micro businesses looking for their first base – have been created on the ground floor. Such has been the demand for these professional, comfortable offices that there is now only one left.

“We’re very proud of the way Shildon Business Centre has been brought to life,” says Anne. “There’s such a variety of businesses taking advantage of the space and it’s been fabulous to see the way it’s grown.”

Steelwork, woodwork, flood defence, heating engineering, insurance and care are among the types of businesses represented, and an enquiry recently came in from a man who makes recycled furniture from old scaffolding poles.

The business centre charges £11 per square foot, equating to £1,859 a year for the remaining empty office, which covers 169sq.ft. With utilities included, and a central meeting room for networking, that represents excellent value.

“It’s not about making a profit on the offices, it’s about helping small businesses to flourish, so it’s very cost-effective,” says Anne.

Aspect Facades

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One of the Shildon Business Centre tenants, Aspect Facades, was established in 2017 to specialise in the design, supply, installation and maintenance of cladding and roof systems. Having started in a 115sq.ft office, it now has three industrial units at the site.

Although Shildon Business Centre is almost full, Anne is keen to stress there’s capacity across her portfolio, so the door is always open to budding businesses.

“It’s such an exciting time because enquiries are coming in every day, which shows things are on the up,” says Anne. “What I really love is seeing the resilience of the people of County Durham who want to use their skills to make or do the most wonderful things – and whatever they need, we’ll do everything possible to accommodate them.”

Core Transition is another business that’s been accommodated at Shildon Business Centre. The company offers a range of services to SMEs, including mentoring, data protection, accounts support, training and management coaching.

The company was launched in 2007 by Andy Shipp, who originally worked from home, but found himself needing office space as the business grew. “I’d looked at another couple of possibilities, but Shildon Business Centre was perfect,” says Andy.

“It’s a clean, smart, professional building with excellent accessibility and security. It’s also extremely good value and the support I get from Anne Ellwood is second to none. The only way you’d get me out is in a box!”

JSB

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While JSB Enterprises may not manufacture the kind of box Andy Shipp is referring to, director Rob Barrons is certainly a local expert when it comes to boxes of all shapes and sizes. He cut his teeth at Taylor Packaging, at Spennymoor, and decided to launch his own business when he was given the opportunity to buy machinery and an order book from a friend who was retiring.

Rob started manufacturing cardboard five years ago and, with the help of the Durham Business Opportunities Programme (DBOP), the company has doubled its turnover and now employs 10 staff after moving to a site in Escomb Road, Bishop Auckland.

JSB manufactures bespoke cartons and boxes, with a USP that it doesn’t deal in minimum production runs.

“It doesn’t matter how small the order is – even down to one box – we’ll make it,” says Rob.

The company’s fortunes improved significantly after it was given a place through DBOP in the Incubator Zone for first-time exhibitors at the Durham Oktoberfest event (now EMCON) in Newton Aycliffe.

“We got a lot of enquiries and started going to breakfast clubs organised by Business Durham,” says Rob. “They supported us with grants and recruitment, and it’s been a really positive experience ever since.”

The good news is that JSB Enterprises has recently had confirmation of new contract packaging work, so more staff will be needed.

When it comes to small businesses, County Durham is clearly Powered by People, their innovation, drive and hard work.

l Powered by People is an initiative to celebrate businesses in County Durham and showcase the county to future investors.

A long-term view to helping smaller businesses thrive

If there is a statistic that underlines the importance of SMEs to the Durham economy, it’s that fact that 97 per cent of the county’s businesses employ fewer than 250 people.

ONS figures show 99.746 per cent of employment in County Durham – including VAT PAYE registered enterprises – being SME-based on the Inter-Departmental Business Register (IDBR). This data was gathered on March 19, 2019 and published October 2, 2019 in the UK business: activity, size and location.

“SMEs form the backbone of our economy and the south of the county is playing a vital part,” says Sarah Slaven, Business Durham’s Interim Managing Director. “Our role is to build long-term relationships so we can support them right through their business journey.”

That support comes in a variety of ways, including; helping businesses to overcome barriers to growth; identifying new locations if they outgrow their premises; advising them on recruitment – including apprenticeships and helping to guide them through diversification.

Four key support programmes are operated by Business Durham:

1. The Durham Business Opportunities Programme (DBOP)

DBOP aims to help County Durham businesses grow by linking them to tangible opportunities such as new contracts, locating premises, identifying new suppliers or securing investment.

“Our aim was to target businesses in the county that, for whatever reasons, hadn’t traditionally taken up offers of business support,” says Sarah.

Setting up an Incubator Zone at Durham Oktoberfest (now EMCON) at Aycliffe is one example of that support.

“For small businesses, taking part in an event like that can be costly, so the Incubator Zone was an area where they could get a stand at a reduced rate,” says Sarah. “The businesses involved also get support before the event on how to present themselves, as well as access to presentation materials. The relationship then continues post-event.”

DBOP, a European-funded programme, had an initial lifespan of three years but, due to its success, funding has been secured for another three years, with phase two running from December 2019-November 2022. To find out more visit businessdurham.co.uk/dbop.

2. Digital Drive County Durham

This is a programme of support for SMEs in County Durham to help them maximise digital technology delivered by UMi on behalf of Business Durham. It includes:

• Fully funded masterclasses, workshops and conferences on topics such as digital transformation, digital content development, social media and search engine optimisation.

• Digital health checks and one-to-one business support with our specialist digital advisors.

• Grant funding support of up to 40 per cent towards the costs of consultancy projects, digital technology equipment or broadband infrastructure and installation.

“One of the key objectives is to increase productivity by helping more business to make better use of digital technology,” says Sarah. “There are still grants available so we’d encourage businesses to apply.”

Digital Drive is funded by the European Regional Development Fund. To find out more visit digitaldrivedurham.co.uk.

3. Finance Durham

Finance Durham is a £20m investment fund, launched by Durham County Council in 2017 and managed by Business Durham through Maven Capital Partners.

The fund, the first of its type in the North-East, is helping County Durham businesses to create jobs by making financial investments ranging from £100,000 to £700,000. The aim is to support up to 70 companies to grow and achieve their ambitions in the first 10 years of the fund, with returns from the scheme being reinvested to ensure many more businesses can be supported in the long term.

The fund also plays a key role in attracting businesses as it can invest in businesses relocating into County Durham as well as existing businesses that are looking to scale up.

“It’s fair to say at least three businesses probably wouldn’t have considered County Durham as a location initially had it not been for Finance Durham, so it is clearly helping Durham become a prime business destination,” says Sarah.

To find out more go to businessdurham.co.uk.

4. County Durham Growth Fund

County Durham Growth Fund is a £4.9m fund to help County Durham’s small and medium-sized businesses to expand and grow by providing funding towards capital investment projects.

To qualify, small and medium-sized businesses need to be planning a capital investment of at least £100,000 to expand existing operations or establish new operations in County Durham.

The fund is being delivered in partnership with UMi, which has a dedicated team of advisors ready to help with initial eligibility checks and funding applications.

County Durham Growth fund is funded by the European Regional Development Fund. To find out more visit countydurhamgrowthfund.co.uk.