‘This is a critical time and we are here to help’
Over the past two months calls to the Thames Valley Berkshire Business Growth Hub have doubled.
In response to the unprecedented challenges facing our district’s businesses it has increased its staffing levels and launched a new coronavirus information and resource portal.
But Growth Hub manager Martin Hall is still concerned that many businesses in need do not know about the free advice and guidance on offer.
“This is a critical time for businesses and we want them to know we are here to help, whatever challenge they are facing,” he said.
“Small businesses and entrepreneurs are the lifeblood of the county’s economy and it is vital they can access the support and expertise they need during this challenging time.
“We are particularly keen to engage with new people too and need them to know we can offer free and impartial advice to help with bounce back and recovery.”
The hub, which is funded by the European Regional Development Fund and Thames Valley Berkshire Local Enterprise Partnership, usually works with more than 1,000 SMEs, sole traders and social enterprises of all sizes and across all sectors each year.
Its new coronavirus portal – which can be found on its website at berkshirebusinesshub.co.uk/coronavirus-advice-for-businesses – provides all the information businesses need to navigate the current challenges in one place, and broken down into easy-to-find categories.
It is now also offering one-to-one online sessions with a dedicated business adviser and Mr Hall says that it is currently able to respond quicker and more efficiently to callers than usual due to the new virtual way of working.
The LEP has also provided additional funding, which has enabled the hub to increase its workforce from seven to 10 during the lockdown.
“Our service levels haven’t changed because, although our enquiries have gone up, we have more staff to deal with them,” Mr Hall explains.
“People can expect a reply by the next working day and any geographically or sector specific questions can be answered by an expert in that field very quickly.
“We are also offering a web chat facility.”
He said that financial concerns and survival are key to businesses at the moment and that the hub has been dealing with a lot of questions regarding the various government schemes available, including furloughing staff.
“Every business has been impacted in some way or form by this pandemic,” he said.
“Clearly cash flow is critical at the moment, but we are moving through the crisis stage and the conversations now are turning to what people need to do when they can go back.
“Businesses are thinking about their staff and trying to predict the impact and trying to ensure they have resilience going forward.”
The hub is a Government-backed scheme and so, Martin stresses, its business advisers can be totally independent and impartial and provide free advice – even when things return to normal after the pandemic.
“Everything is tailored to the businesses we help,” he said.
“We have no particular agenda apart from helping the business to grow.
“We are able to connect people with the existing support out there already.
“From time to time every business will benefit from external input.
“We provide them with a taste of that and can be a catalyst for businesses to seek support from elsewhere.
“We help to fill the gaps and, where necessary, put people in touch with other sources of support.
“The nature of our intervention is relatively short and brief.
“We help people identify strengths and weaknesses within their business.”
Before lockdown there was a dedicated adviser for each geographical area within Berkshire and for West Berkshire, that person was Martin. And with a wealth of experience behind him he is perfectly placed to help local businesses “survive and thrive”.
Born and brought up in Cheshire, he attended Manchester Grammar School, where the school moto was Sapere Aude – dare to be wise.
After finishing his A-levels he went on to take business studies at Bradford University.
While he was there he was “lucky enough to get on a very good scheme” with a local textile mill, John Fosters.
The company sponsored him through university and he spent his holidays working on time-and-motion studies in its weaving room.
After graduating in 1993, he headed to London, working in the East End for Cable & Wireless.
After four years there he moved to The Innovations Group, as its database marketing manager.
It was the late 1990s and the company was one of the first to pioneer a move into e-commerce.
“At the time you didn’t necessarily appreciate where it was going to go,” he said.
“After that I moved to Newbury and got a job working for Thames Water as a project manager based in its customer service centre in Swindon.
“I worked there for a couple of years before I took voluntary redundancy and set up my own business – a property management and lettings business in Twickenham.
“I had had a corporate career and I was getting a sense that I would like to try working for myself. So I went in at the deep end.”
After five years another company in a neighbouring area made Martin “an offer he couldn’t refuse” and he sold up.
After that – in 2008 – he joined Business Link, a national business support programme funded by the Government, as a business coach.
This was the precursor to the Thames Valley Berkshire Business Growth Hub that he now heads today.
Established in 2014, the Growth Hub is administered on a regional basis, making it easier to tailor the service to the specific needs of an area.
Working with its network of more than 90 partner experts, the Growth Hub also provides a series of free online advice clinics in areas such as HR and employment law, IT and remote working, cyber security, finance and funding, accounting, social media and brand communications.