This week’s small business superstar is Kathy McArdle, CEO of Creative Quarter, a Nottingham-based project for economic growth, enterprise and entrepreneurial spirit. We discussed Nottingham’s creative culture, what businesses should do when faced with overdraft problems and winning an award at the SME Assembly in Luxembourg.
Tell me more about Creative Quarter and the work you’re doing to encourage entrepreneurship?
The Creative Quarter is Nottingham’s hub for creative businesses, centred in the old historic Lace Market. It’s a thriving business area where the creative, digital and tech sectors have found home in the area’s historic buildings.
Our role is to make this the best business environment in the UK. To do this, we offer a second-to-none support service for the businesses located here or who wish to locate here. We work closely to provide soft landing packages for businesses moving in, ensure they have the best advice about any aspect of running their business and have all the info they need to access finance and to grow.
You pride yourselves on establishing a ‘creative ecology comprising of entrepreneurs’. Do you think that business owners who collaborate together have a better chance of remaining sustainable?
The Creative Quarter is essentially a cluster of like-minded but very diverse businesses, many of whom do business together to generate collaborative advantage. The project was set up very much to engineer the sort of serendipitous meetings that can spark collaboration.
Collaboration definitely allows SMEs to share infrastructure, business support and purchasing networks. It can definitely drive down costs and unlock growth opportunities by opening up new markets. But all businesses need to be clear about how collaboration is genuinely bringing benefit to the business.
What is your proudest achievement?
When we started in 2012, the CQ area was really suffering from the recession and looking tired. Our proudest achievement has to be turning that situation around – giving the area a new lease of life, through a mass-collaboration with a multitude of partners.
The area is now thriving; it is full of buzz, life and the energy of entrepreneurs, new businesses, and social and cultural events. That transformation, wrought over just two-and-a-half year, has to be our best achievement.
Many businesses outside of London are struggling with their overdrafts, with some firms having them completely withdrawn. What should be done to remedy this situation?
This does represent a real challenge to SMEs, particularly those who are struggling with their working capital, waiting on orders to come in or payments to come in from clients.
The banks are clearly cutting down on overdraft facilities for smaller businesses and this is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. I do think that SMEs can’t wait for policy solutions to come over the horizon! Businesses look at the many alternative finance options which are available.
It is also a good time for SMEs to talk to the new suite of V-C funds available nationally as well. Other options to be explored include peer-to-peer lending from firms which is a good option where there is a strong peer-to-peer support community as there is in Nottingham. Businesses just need a lot of variety on offer and I think this is starting to come into the market now.
You provide access to employment for 16-24 year olds in CQ businesses via apprenticeships. What do you make of the government’s plans to create three million apprenticeships by 2020 – do you think it will be a success?
I can’t predict the future, but I do have to endorse the Government’s ambition in this area. Apprenticeships offer pathways into such a wide range of employment for young people for whom the university route might not be the right pathway.
I’m delighted to see new industry standards being brought in to ensure apprentices get the best-possible training. I’m pleased to see the government have consulted widely on the apprenticeship levy and are promising to really engage businesses in reaching this target. And if the larger businesses, like those in the 5% club, are going to commit to it, then it has a very strong chance of success.
But for this to really work decision-making needs to be devolved to the more regional and local level. Cities like Nottingham have shown, that with control of the funding, they can address the deeper issues of long-term unemployment and low skills levels but proper control of powers and funding we need proper relating to employment services and work-related benefits wold make it much easier to meet local employer skills needs.
Central government needs to hand over control of this area to local decision-makers who can work at a regional level to help them meet these targets.
You recently were awarded the ‘Improving The Business Environment Award’ at the SME Assembly in Luxembourg. What do you put your success down to?
It won’t surprise you that the recipe was:
- A good strategy created through public-private partnership in the Nottingham Growth plan and City Deal;
- Strong policy decisions taken by Nottingham City Council working with Whitehall
- A collaborative approach which embraced the Universities, the City Council, existing business support programmes and hubs, the private sector and businesses already in the CQ area
- A fantastic (and small) staff team who are totally committed to the vision and mission of the project
- Loads of energy and risk-taking from local entrepreneurs.
- A healthy dollop of hard work and sheer graft
— SMEInsider (@SMEInsider) November 19, 2015
If a movie was being made of your life, who would you want to play you?
Saoirse Ronan – a great Irish actress who’s from the Irish countryside like me but has shown she can kick ass in ‘Hanna’.
What is your opinion on work spaces – do you think entrepreneurs work best in an office space or is an open working space more suitable?
The main thing about workspace is it has to fit the needs of the entrepreneur and their growing business.
I do think the 21st century workspace is becoming more and more dynamic and flexible – with pods where people can meet in small groups, technologically-enabled meeting spaces, events spaces in the workplace and much more. More and more contractors are actually working from home. Many entrepreneurs are working remotely and in hotels, bars and co-working spaces.
Increasingly people are using creative workspace, like Antenna Media Centre in the CQ, which is both a café, workspace and meeting space in one. There’s no one-size-fits all any more. But once the variety is there, entrepreneurs will either nose out what they need or create their own!
What is your favourite quote and why?
‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’ – because it summarises a healthy attitude to life and to making things happen.
Fear of failure can paralyse anyone, but the most extraordinary people I’ve ever known, in all walks of life, know how to hurdle the fear, manage it and get on with making great change happen.