Helping hand brings small NI businesses a long way


BELFAST BRIEFING:NUTRITIONAL experts may claim that breakfast is the most important meal of the day; David and Jill Crawford swear by it.

The husband-and-wife team who started a Portaferry-based business from the oven in the family home rarely think of anything else. Breakfast has become something of an obsession for them in the last three years – one that has just helped them land their first major overseas contract.

Crawford’s Foods, which they established in 2009, is Northern Ireland’s only manufacturer of granola cereals and muesli. The small family business is toasting the success of a new contract that will see its “Just Live a Little” branded granolas on the shelves of Hong Kong’s biggest grocery retailer, ParknShop.

For the Crawfords it represents an exciting if somewhat daunting prospect. It’s an impressive coup for a relatively young business, particularly since they only took their first tentative export steps (south of the Border) earlier this year.

David Crawford believes he would never have had the opportunity to get his product on the shelves in Hong Kong if it had not been for a push from the North’s regional economic development agency, Invest NI, which helped open doors.

The Crawfords’ “big break” came from Howard Hastings, the managing director of Hastings Hotels, who was looking to shake up the breakfast menu across all of his six hotels in the North.

Hastings agreed to sample some of the Just Live a Little granolas and muesli, declared himself a fan and delivered a contract. Without the initial backing from Hastings, Crawford acknowledges the business idea might not have got off the ground so quickly. “Before Jill and I had been working full-time and trying to develop the Just Live a Little brands non-stop in the evenings and at the weekend. The Hastings contract meant I could give up other work and focus solely on the business.

The Crawfords believe they were quite fortunate when it came to securing the finance to expand their business from a home oven to a purpose-built bakery – behind their home in an old barn.

“I think the more successful we got – with the likes of the Hastings contract – the more approachable the bank got. Now, thanks to the export order, we’ve got even more credibility,” Crawford says.

But they are among the lucky ones, according to the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB). Wilfred Mitchell, Northern Ireland policy chairwoman, said banks claim there is little demand for loans from small businesses.

“Our own surveys show this isn’t the case, with six in 10 wanting to expand, and usually needing finance to do so.

“The banks also claim many loan applications are too high-risk. This too appears not to be the case, given that 40 per cent of small firms appealing against loan refusals to an independent adjudicator are granted the money. The reality is that the big banks are holding on to the money and excusing themselves by suggesting small firms do not want to borrow it.”

The UK government has just launched a potential £80 billion scheme to deliver “credit easing” to the UK economy. The Funding for Lending Scheme incentivises banks and building societies to increase lending to UK households and businesses by letting them borrow from the Bank of England for up to four years.

According to the UK treasury, “banks will have strong incentives to boost lending, by lowering interest rates and increasing the availability of business loans and mortgages. The more they lend, the more they can borrow from the Bank of England.”

But will it make a difference in the North? The SDLP’s economy spokesman, Mid-Ulster MLA Pasty McGlone, believes “it has the potential to provide a much-needed boost to our local economy”. He has written to the chief executives of Ulster Bank, Bank of Ireland, First Trust, Northern Bank and Santander, asking them to detail how they intend to utilise the £80 billion scheme in Northern Ireland.

In the meantime, companies such as Newtownabbey-based Acksen will concentrate on how best to grow their business as cost-effectively as possible. The Queen’s University spin-out, which specialises in datalog devices for monitoring and tracking electricity voltage, recently won its first order in Poland after a government trade mission.

Charlene Thompson, Acksen’s sales manager, said it signed a distribution deal in Warsaw and a partnership agreement with a distributor in Prague. The company, which employs four people, has plans to look further afield for business, particularly to the US. “I don’t know why more companies don’t take part in trade missions; it really doesn’t cost that much money and it is a great way to meet people and to make things happen,” she said.

Acksen and Crawford’s Foods are thriving Northern Irish companies. But countless others cannot find the space to manoeuvre because they have been locked into financial straitjackets by banks. Could the new funding initiative help give them a chance to shine? Sadly that may be up to the banks to decide.

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