Creating a competitive advantage in the SME sector

In a previous blog, my far more cerebral colleague, Stephen Gregson, managed to weave French philosopher Voltaire and man of letters Michel de Montaigne into a discussion about strategic business planning, and assisting clients see through the fog of current business challenges.

I’ll now attempt to link colour-blindness, garden peas and low-cost digital manufacturing initiatives to building a sustainable competitive advantage and shareholder value…stick with me…

My career in accountancy and corporate finance is a quirk of genetics – throughout my youth I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and be an engineer. However, a session with my school careers adviser when I was making my A-Level choices cruelly pulled the rug from beneath my engineering ambitions with the news that as most engineering design drawings, electrical diagrams, gas/chemical charts etc are colour-coded, not being able to tell the difference between red and green could be a tad problematic.

My optical deficiencies had been identified some years earlier when, knowing my mum always wanted to impress the local Vicar when he made his occasional home visits, I ran into the house proclaiming his imminent arrival as he had just parked his red Mini a few doors away. 30 minutes later with tea and cakes at the ready, he hadn’t arrived – it turned out it wasn’t the Vicar at all, but someone visiting a neighbour …in a green Mini.

Numerous eye-tests later I was formally diagnosed, laying the foundations of my subsequent career decisions. My younger brother’s similar diagnosis a few years later was a much more straightforward affair when he innocently asked at the dinner table one evening “Mum, why are peas called green peas when they’re red” ?…he’s also not now an engineer.

But, years later, I am still a frustrated engineer and still fascinated by how engineering has historically found ingenious solutions to a vast range of industrial, commercial and business problems. This led me to recently watch a webinar arranged by the ICAEW and Cambridge University’s Institute for Manufacturing, entitled “Making digital manufacturing on a shoestring work.”

I recommend any business owners seeking to gain an insight into how digital technologies can now be implemented at extremely low cost, and to help move your business into the age of Industry 4.0, to visit the IfM website – where a number of SME business owners and academics address how this thinking is helping them tackle an interesting range of operational issues.

Both myself and most of the business owners I have talked to about strategically moving into an era of digitisation and introduction of AI, have assumed that the cost would be prohibitive and therefore beyond their reach. But, this no longer has to be the case based on the IfM’s approach which uses cheap, off-the-shelf technology and devices, and readily available open-source software to deliver significant operational and cost improvements for hundreds of £’s rather than tens of thousands of £’s.

The IfM’s primary focus sits perfectly alongside the approach we also take to assist SME client reviews and assess and challenge their historic busines models, with a view to improving the business and driving shareholder value.

A key part of the non-transactional advisory elements of our Corporate Finance teams’ approach to working with our clients is structured around constructively challenging business owners and management teams to break-out of a cycle of repeating next month, exactly what they did the previous month, and the month before that and the month before that, to open their eyes to alternative thinking.

With all of the competing pressures and challenges of running a business, particularly with the added difficulties and uncertainties arising from COVID-19, it’s not surprising that many businesses, management teams and shareholder groups tend to adopt a primarily inwardly-focused approach to “business improvement”, often missing the opportunity and benefits of exploring how wider thinking, alternate strategies and new technologies could perhaps help deliver significant operational improvements, cost reductions and long term competitive advantage.

In a commercial world dominated, at present, by the combined uncertainties of COVID-19, Brexit and wider global geo-political uncertainties, making your business more robust and more able to successfully take advantage of what will inevitably be an altered landscape of opportunities and challenges over the coming months, is perhaps no longer a choice but now an imperative.

A key take-away from the IfM’s “digital manufacturing shoestring” agenda is perhaps therefore that the adoption of strategic business planning and business improvement processes is not exclusively the domain of much larger multi-national businesses with the budgets to deploy and significant financial resources to take their businesses forward and improve their competitive position – these strategies and thought processes are available to every business.

We adopt a structured but flexible approach to strategic planning and business improvement – if you would like to discuss further, please contact Simon Carruthers, Corporate Finance Director or a member of the Corporate Finance team on 0161 519 5050 or email

PS – there’s a happy ending to the above story. As colour blindness is passed through your mother’s chromosomes, my daughters are both free of this visual impairment and guess what…the youngest is now a graduate engineer!