Small firms can punch way above their weight

MIGHTY oaks from little acorns. With around 6,000 small businesses providing the backbone of the Huntingdonshire economy and with many larger companies having grown from minnows, finding the Small Business of the Year is a vital task for the competition j

MIGHTY oaks from little acorns. With around 6,000 small businesses providing the backbone of the Huntingdonshire economy and with many larger companies having grown from minnows, finding the Small Business of the Year is a vital task for the competition judges.

This year's award, sponsored by the Huntingdonshire branch of the Federation of Small Businesses, is open to any business in the district that began trading before January 2005 - newer enterprises fall into a different category - from sole traders to firms employing up to 25 people.

The judges will be crawling over business plans and funds and investment plans for the four short-listed entries, and making judgments on the working environment in the company and how staff are treated. Companies will be asked to show their depth of understanding of the marketplaces in which they are trading, how they conceive, test and practice new ideas, and the judges will be looking for evidence of customer satisfaction.

Crucially, they will also want to examine how the companies have grown their business base and turnover in the last 12 months.

Under the spotlight in this category are IT services company Bright Vision Ltd, of St Neots, contract electronics manufacturer Circuit Solutions Limited, of Hemingford Abbots, its next-door neighbour, last year's category winner TP Golf Management Limited, and Eaton Ford-based The Mortgage Broker Limited, the largest broker of its kind in East Anglia.

Bright Visions, which has been established since February 2003, started life in a bedroom and now occupies purpose-built premises at Colmworth Business Park in St Neots.

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Key services for its SME clients include complete IT support/outsourcing as well as bespoke software development solutions.

"Our focus has always been to provide a specialised service and working with quality associates to complement our services," said the £400,000-a-year company's Philip Mashinchi.

Plans include restructuring the eight-strong team into initially two distinct groups with a long-term view of creating a group of companies offering specialised services, and expansion of the company through acquisitions and mergers with similar companies, he added.

Circuit Solutions, founded in 1987, aims to increase its £1.5million turnover to £2.45million by 2010, and has £300,000 plans to increase manufacturing capacity in the current fiscal year.

The contract electronics manufacturer is particularly strong in niche customer segments of high-tech businesses manufacturing high-value products. It employs 27 people and attained Investors In People accreditation in 2003.

Circuit Solutions' Neil Monington said it was experiencing rapid growth in profits and revenue. "Profits have grown at a compound annual rate exceeding 20 per cent over the last three years," he said.

The Mortgage Broker Limited, formed three years ago, plans to double both staff numbers - it currently employs 21 people - and turnover, on the back of a 100 per cent increase in mortgage business.

It is proud of having flexible working hours to suit both the business and its employees.

In spite of having what may be a more comprehensive customer satisfaction survey base than any competitor, there has not been a single complaint from any of the 3,000 mortgages it has placed, and nearly a quarter of its business is from returning clients, said managing director Darren Pescod.

Last year TP Golf opened a new purpose-built retail store allowing the company to hold more stock and display it more effectively in comfortable, well-lit surroundings. This led to sales going from £710,000 in 2005/06 to £1.3million in 2006/07, said managing director Peter Durham.

"We are now planning to extend the store, as we need more room to display clothing. The expansion will give us an additional 1,200sq ft and is part of the new restaurant, sports bar, new academy, short game area and conferencing facility currently being built.

"The bar and restaurant will allow families to spend the weekend at the complex, practice every aspect of their game and then eat together as a family.

"The conferencing facility will attract new business to the complex that was previously unaware of our existence. The short game area will allow golfers to focus on the important aspect of their game and keep them at the complex for much longer periods."

TP Golf is in a straight fight with St Ives department store W Eaden Lilley for the title of Retailer of the Year, sponsored by chartered surveyors DH Barford, of St Neots.

The judges are looking for good performance over the past 12 months, demonstrating how the short-listed companies train and update their staff on product knowledge.

The two companies will have to demonstrate how the design of their premises showcases their products, and explain recent or forthcoming expansion plans and their strategies for sustained growth.

Customer care and feedback will count for much, as will business performance over the past 12 months.

The St Ives retailer is almost certainly the longest-established firm to enter these awards. It moved from Cambridge, where it was founded in 1750, a few years ago, and is now a firmly established part of the Bridge Street scene.

Conscious of where its main competition lies, Eaden Lilley St Ives, with 65 employees, has been designed to offer everything that the larger multi-nationals can offer, but locally on your doorstep, said manager Andrew West.

"The layout is spacious and inviting. The open plan design allows someone new to the store to take stock immediately of where different departments within the store are. When Eaden Lilley moved into the old Bryant's store, a conscious decision was made to update the store, giving it a modern feel with dozens of white lights and laminate flooring throughout.

"Sustained growth for Eaden Lilley St Ives can come only by offering our current customers exactly what they are looking for, whilst simultaneously trying to meet the requirements of the people of Huntingdonshire who do not currently shop with us," he added.

"This will come only through regular reviews of where the company is performing well and where improvements or alterations are required.