University of Ulster: Providing customised support to Northern Ireland’s SME sector


The establishment earlier this year of the Centre for SME Development by the University of Ulster Business School has given small and medium-sized businesses in Northern Ireland a new source of advice and support.

“Our initial thinking was prompted by a recognition that we have considerable talent here in the Ulster Business School in terms of academic staff who have worked in SMEs and who have extensive relationships and networks with owner managers,” says Pauric McGowan, professor of entrepreneurship and business development at the Ulster Business School and director of the centre.

“We saw that we could do a lot to help the business community if we could develop a centre which would be a focus for all that energy and talent which we possess here. We have the capability to draw upon our academic resources as well as our external networks and attract owner managers to come and look for support.”

SMEs play an integral role in the growth of any economy. “Northern Ireland is particularly dependent on such businesses for its economic wellbeing and stability, especially given that they make up almost 95 per cent of businesses in the province,” he says. “The performance of these companies is crucial to the future performance of the local economy as a whole in terms of output, value added, productivity, innovation and employment. This is particularly pertinent at present in light of the losses of public sector jobs and the need to rebuild and rebalance the economy through private sector growth.”

This means that SMEs which are capable of contributing to the regional economy through export-led growth and employment creation are of critical importance to Northern Ireland’s economic future.

The main aim of the new centre is to help owner managers of SMEs in Northern Ireland to achieve their business goals. “It doesn’t matter if they have a clear vision of how they want to see their business develop or just want to explore the possibilities of what their prospects might be. We want to help and support them in reaching their potential by augmenting the existing business support initiatives which are there to help SME owner managers to achieve their business objectives.”

One aspect of the centre which makes it stand out from other SME support services is its broad approach. “Our approach is based on the belief that SMEs are not little big businesses and therefore require customised forms of support,” McGowan says. “SME owner managers have a variety of ambitions and objectives for their businesses and not all of them are focused on getting to the next level and growing to become large in scale. Some may aim to establish their business as a small and effective participant in a particular market and want to stay lean and mean for the future. In other cases it might be that the business is in the third sector and is a social enterprise and again strong growth is not the priority. And then there is the growing number of lifestyle businesses – businesses which fit in with and support their owners’ current lifestyles. We want to support all of them with appropriate programmes and assistance.”

The nature of the support provided is also slightly different and ranges from master classes delivered by business experts to extended business development programmes on areas such as entrepreneurial marketing, enterprise development, and management development.

“Many of our programmes are aimed at boosting business performance by facilitating leadership and management development”, McGowan points out. “We provide a range of support activities, development programmes and events delivered by Ulster Business School staff as well as by visiting lecturers and experts.”

The next masterclass scheduled will be delivered by former Michelin director Graham Whitehurst in Belfast on October 17th. “He will be speaking on operational excellence and this is aimed at owner managers who are interested in developing lean production methods in their businesses. Another masterclass we have planned for the New Year is aimed at emerging entrepreneurs and encouraging them to push beyond their current limits and go on to the next level.”

This masterclass is aimed at tackling what McGowan describes as the “BMW syndrome”. This describes the situation many owner managers find themselves in where they have achieved their initial aims with their business in terms of size and personal benefits. “We want to encourage them to explore further possibilities for their businesses.”

For entrepreneurs looking for more intensive and long term assistance the centre will offer a Small Business Development Programme in 2014. “This is a nine-month programme designed for companies with growth ambitions and we will be supporting the owner managers with mentors and assistance in a variety of areas.”

Beyond the walls of the university the centre is working with Work West, the enterprise agency which promotes economic and social development in west Belfast. “We have developed a programme for them where we help new start-ups with training and mentoring,” says McGowan. “Another very successful programme we are running is in conjunction with our Masters in Marketing course in the Business School. The course has an entrepreneurship module and we have been forming three person teams to lodge in real companies and work on real strategic marketing problems for them.”

In one case the team was so successful that the company wanted to hire the three members – they turned down the offer and formed their own firm with the company as their first client.

“We are also keen to work in collaboration with other organisations both in the public and private sectors,” McGowan adds.

“Back in June we had 250 business owners attend a seminar given by renowned business coach Brad Sugars on helping people with sales. We ran that in conjunction with Action Coach and it was hugely successful. It is important to collaborate and network with other organisations as much as possible in this space.”

Business owners wishing to avail of the services offered by the Centre for SME Development just need to call or email. “If a business owner has an issue which they think we can help with they can call us and we will have a look and see if we can assist. We have 120 academic staff here in the business school with vast expertise to offer and if it is a technical issue we can utilise the resources of the university. And if we can’t help here we will use our external networks to point them in the right direction.”