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Radicals lead the recovery in the West

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Dave Harvey | 21:50 UK time, Sunday, 24 January 2010

"They can't outspend their rivals, but they can out-think them".
"When the recovery comes, it can't be back to business as usual."
"Don't wait for your ship to come in, swim out to grab it."

Have you noticed it? The cold winter air is thick with warming business mottos. Everyone from the small greengrocer to the funky digital start-up is being urged to "think out of the box".

Nowhere more than here. A new site launched today by Business Link South West. I think of their advisors as the Doctor Finlays of Enterprise; firm but friendly hands guiding small businesses through the tough times. They've been flat out over the last two years of course, but now they think the patient is recovering.

I see dozens of businesses in my job," says Chris Simpson, one of their advisors based in Bath. "Every day they ask me when the recession will end. But I tell them all the same thing: don't wait for the sun to come out."

Chris and his organisation are sure that recovery will not come to firms who wait.

Books and more books at Toppings

So today their website showcases a "Challenger Business". It's an old fashioned bookshop, Toppings of Bath. Robert Topping hates business jargon so much he won't even use the word "customers".

Robert Topping meets Chris Simpson "They're friends, book lovers, people, for heaven's sake!" And when Chris and I meet him, he explains gleefully how he breaks the cardinal rule in bookselling.

"They call it stockturn. Every book is meant to sell five times a year, so it's not on the shelf for long. That way, by the time you have to pay the publishers for it, you've already sold it. But then you don't have books people actually want."

Mr Topping knows the industry rules from the inside, having worked for Waterstones, who sacked him for being too much of a maverick. His shop is now crammed with books, many of which haven't sold for years. But go in for something unusual, and he'll have it.

I meet a behatted, bookish Bathonian who loves the place. "Nothing is too much trouble," he gushes. "Free coffee, a recommendation, and if they haven't got it - which is extraordinary - they'll get it in for you double quick."

It sounds old fashioned, quaint even. But in the year that Borders went to the wall and high street booksellers really struggled, Toppings made good money.

There'll be another Challenger business along tomorrow, and every day for 100 days.

But what's the point? What's the message?

"Challengers can take on and beat their larger, more established rivals," says Ian Muir, one of the brains behind today's campaign. "They think and act differently. They see niches in established markets or enter new ones unhindered by tradition."

The hallmarks of a challenger? They attract the best people, not by paying more but by making an "inspirational working environment". They beat the competition by "being innovative in everything they do." They have effective marketing "embedded in their DNA".

Chris Simpson of Business Link OK, time for the sceptic-check. Hands up the boss who tries to make their workplace depressing. The MD who hates innovation. The CEO who thinks marketing is a waste of time. Is all this just a fancy piece of Business-Think Motherhood and Apple Pie?

"Every business says it," Chris Simpson, "but these firms actually do it."

In the end, the best proof is the examples. Cult Clothing. Majestic Wine. The Tobacco Factory. Xmos micro-chips. Bart Spices. Bottle Green Drinks. Renishaw Engineering. Ecotricity green power.... West Country firms with inspiring leaders, and remarkably healthy balance sheets.

"We found close on 100 inspirational firms round the table in a couple of hours," Ian goes on. "There are so many, we've been able to pick and choose our examples from across the West Country."

The campaign will be featured regularly on the South West Business site, so if you want to follow the stories it's a good place to check up on.

You'll have your own challenger heroes, maybe your own top tips. Why not share them here? It's not an advertising space - the blogteam will filter out any blatant plugs. But this will be the space where the West's entrepreneurs share their wisdom. And hey, if you still want "blue sky thinking", I recommend my colleague Ian Fergusson's Weather blog.


  • Comment number 1.

    I'd never heard of Topping bookstore, but after reading this and looking at the company website I'm definitely going to pay them a visit, they're my sort of people (hate buying books from the supermarket, even tho they are cheap!). we obviously need big businesses in our economy, but in my view it will be the smaller more enterprising businesses (but with big ideas) like Topping who are going to get us properly out of this recession.

  • Comment number 2.

    Interesting article. Good to see that small, independent businesses are being profiled on the Business Link South West site. Agree, it's going to be the smaller outfits, with their own niche and often unique marketing tools, that are going to be successful in the current climate.

  • Comment number 3.

    Toppings is the most magical place... helpful friendly advice and suggestions, tea and coffee freely offered, wonderful other-worldly atmosphere And best of all, it's a year-long litfest, with a constant full programme of interesting talks and events from all sorts of authors and speakers - some held cosily in the shop where you squeeze in amongst the books and sip your glass of wine, and the more high-profile ones in local churches who, presumably, benefit from the revenue. In a busy touristy city, it's such a great asset, offering interest and service to locals and visitors alike. Every city should have somewhere like it (and no, I don't work there! Though I envy those who do...)

  • Comment number 4.

    It's great to hear about a small business doing well, even in the most challenging climate. It just goes to show what creativity, determination and passion can achieve! We are lucky to be surrounded by so many interesting and innovative businesses in this region. Only recently, I dealt with a small independent recruitment consultancy, Lucy Bristow Appointments, and I was amazed by Lucy's spirit and innovative approach. I think we can learn a lot from companies like these, and I look forward to hearing more.

  • Comment number 5.

    Adapt or die. Businesses large or small, startup or trading, product or service orientated businesses must adapt to the environment they are in. Those that do are far more likely to prosper than those that don't.
    The best way to adapt is to look around for people, agencies or other firms that can help you adapt - your "support environment".
    At SETsquared we work with high-tech, high-growth businesses - and are the safest place to grow a business - because of that support network.
    Learning others' experience is a key component of what we do and I encourage any business to look up, out of the mire for those who are around to support them - including Business Link.

  • Comment number 6.

    The businesses that thrive are those that go the extra mile, those that genuinely care about their customers as well as their profit margins. Also, in the South West I think we are rich with imaginative, talented people who deserve to do well.

  • Comment number 7.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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