Cantillon: Small businesses face big conundrum

There is an elephant in the room but it may not be worth a company's time or money to talk about it. It emerged earlier this week that the vast majority of small and medium businesses in Ireland are ill-prepared, if even conscious, of the impending shadow of the Single Euro Payments Area (Sepa) implementation, which will seek to ease cross-continental financial transactions.

Good news for customers, but for businesses? Between now and next February (the date of its introduction), firms across the State will have to invest in reconfiguring software systems to deal with changes to credit transfers and direct debit payment systems.

The conundrum for smaller outfits operating a limited number of direct debits with customers – for example gyms – is, is the cost and effort involved in “getting prepared” worth it?

As John Rice, who is overseeing its implementation for the Central Bank, succinctly puts it: "That is a question for them. If they have got 50 customers on direct debit schemes, what is that doing for you necessarily if there are costs involved in switching over, which there are?"


But that may be to get ahead of ourselves. Whether or not it’s worth it, how many of the estimated 50,000 companies are ready for it? Of that figure, problems are likely only to affect about 5,000.

Earlier this week the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises (Isme) association said 71 per cent of its members had yet to start prepping, while just one in four was aware of the potential impact: complications in payment systems.

When in doubt, blame the banks.

"It is incumbent on banks to inform their customers in time to allow them to prepare for this change and once again they have been found wanting, with two thirds of SMEs bereft of information," fumed Isme chief Mark Fielding.

“Sepa is an important change in the national payments system and will affect small and medium businesses in varying degrees, depending on their method of receipts and payments.”

And the storm is nearly upon us. By February next, all national direct debits and credit transfers must be "Sepa compliant", incorporating everything from staff payrolls to paying creditors and receiving transactions. National sort codes as we know them, and account numbers, will be replaced by International Bank Account Numbers (IBAN) and a bank identifier codes (BIC).

Interesting times.

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times