Bad luck comes in threes, as the saying goes.
Just as Welsh small businesses glimpsed a revival in trade with the further lifting of restrictions in August, many found themselves struggling to find the right mix of financial backing to re-establish and grow their operations.
Then, despite reports of trade returning to normal levels for many, Economic Resilience Fund grants which had supported businesses throughout the pandemic came to an end in August, and many must also plan for the impact of the end of the furlough scheme later this month.
Now, many businesses are being hit by staffing shortages and supply chain issues, which in turn is fuelling inflation.
However, I don’t want to paint too pessimistic a picture of small business revival in Wales. Our recent results from our SME Recovery Tracker survey have highlighted a strong return of optimism and good trading levels.
But business owners have told us about their frustrations – and in some cases their mental health issues – as they try to harness that optimism and drive but have found obstacles in the way.
Throughout the course of the pandemic, ACCA has been monitoring the views of small business owners and our members with our monthly tracker, which we carry out with The Corporate Finance Network. During July and August, we were fortunate enough to gather responses from accountants representing 4,800 and 12,135 small business owners in Wales.
The story that has unfolded has been one of thwarted ambition for many. Small business owners in Wales are feeling optimistic and are keen to re-establish and grow their businesses.
However, growth usually requires financial backing and SMEs have been frustrated by the mix of financial options open to them.
Traditional routes to funding seem to be running dry – 80% of accountants in Wales said their clients had found it more difficult to obtain even an overdraft.
Welsh SMEs were almost twice as likely (60%) to be turned down for commercial mortgages than businesses across the UK.
By August, SMEs were unanimously saying that business trading had returned to the level they expected or slightly higher, a jump of 11% from July.
All respondents also believed they would achieve pre-Covid levels of productivity and turnover within two years, with 57% estimating they would hit that target within 12 months.
But the financial backing they need to take advantage of growing opportunities has been lagging behind, despite the winding down of government-backed support. SMEs are still struggling to qualify for an unsecured business loan or even an overdraft.
Their frustrations are linked to some worrying results on the health and wellbeing of small business owners, with 22% saying they were feeling more stressed and anxious and 19% reporting that they were either not sleeping, feeling unable to cope or saying that their mental health had deteriorated.
These are points we made to the Senedd Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs committee last week in a consultation response.
On behalf of our 3,500 Welsh members, who work across the private and public sectors, we highlighted the need to ensure access to finance for SMEs and to encourage green recovery.
We would like continued support for businesses who are still affected by the pandemic and are still unable to trade at full throttle.
There’s more to do when it comes to the slow rollout of the Recovery Loans Scheme. And based on the evidence from our members, businesses are less likely to take up the UK Government’s ‘pay as your grow’ options than elsewhere in the UK.
We have also called for a simplified tax system and for proper scrutiny on the proposed changes to the way Welsh SMEs pay tax, which will cause quite an upheaval. This of course ties into this week’s announcement of the Health and Social Care Levy, which whilst attempting to solve the long-standing issue of funding social care, will add additional costs on businesses and increase the overall complexity of the tax system.
We believe Wales should be the best place to start and grow a business, and that economic development support schemes and support to develop skills across businesses should be easy to find and simple to access. Accountants and finance professionals of course have a key role in ensuring that their clients or businesses are fully aware of the support available.
And while we are focusing on recovery from the pandemic, we ought not to forget the biggest threat to business and society – climate crisis. Our recent report Rethinking risk for the Future highlights the need to move towards sustainable businesses that generate financial returns but also deliver positive value for society and are environmentally responsible.
Small businesses also need access to finance and practical guidance to encourage businesses to meet environmental targets, and, again, accountants and finance professionals have a key role to play in signposting these.
It’s not all bad news by any means. And not all businesses are having trouble finding financial backing, and there are many sources of funding available, as highlighted by Business Wales and the British Business Bank. The recent Finance Awards Wales highlighted the great work being carried out by finance teams across Wales to support businesses of all sizes across all sectors. The Wales Start Up Awards celebrated new businesses that had started or thrived during the recent challenging times. These awards showed the resilience, innovation and will to succeed that exists in Welsh businesses across all sectors, and congratulations to all winners and nominees.
Like all sayings, ‘bad luck comes in threes’ doesn’t cover the whole story. It originated from the trenches and the war time belief that if a match was burning long enough for three soldiers to lights their cigarettes, then that was long enough for the enemy to spot you and shoot.
Our businesses have seen the spark of recovery and we must make sure we don’t snuff it out.