ENI survey finds NI business agile but fragile

Enterprise Northern Ireland (ENI) has just released the largest business survey of its kind in the region and findings suggest that up to 6,200 businesses across NI could be in difficulty today.

Over 1250 small businesses participated in ENI’s Enterprise Barometer Survey which paints a diverse picture of the economic landscape with 51% of businesses reporting growth over the past 12 months while around 1 in 10 businesses are contracting, with 1 in 20 in difficulty.

The survey covered largely micro enterprises (less than 10 employees), small business (less than 49 employees) and the self-employed. This group however represents 99.2% of the enterprises in the NI economy.

Brexit is a key concern for many of the businesses who responded to the survey but there are more fundamental concerns around the availability of skilled workers, access to finance and investment in technology and training.

CEO of ENI, Michael McQuillan said: “The survey analysis depicts an agile business population. Despite huge uncertainty 51% of businesses surveyed have reported growth over the past 12 months with 1 in 10 growing strongly. These businesses have the agility and determination to navigate around and through a range of barriers.

“The nature, however, of a small and micro business is that it doesn’t take much to stop progress. These businesses are more vulnerable to: customers taking too long to pay; a customer going out of business; a change in regulations; or a hike in supply costs than their larger counterparts.

“Making up 99% of the NI economy it is critical that this fragility is acknowledged and that these businesses – the backbone of our local communities – are protected and supported. Around 1 in 10 businesses are contracting, according to the report, with 1 in 20 being in trouble. This could mean that 6,200 small businesses across Northern Ireland are in trouble today.”

The aim is for this inaugural survey to become an annual barometer that will inform strategic policy and help shape practical interventions throughout the enterprise support ecosystem.

Northern Irish Economist, Maureen O’Reilly, who led on the Enterprise Barometer research added: “The response shows that micro and small businesses want and need to have their voices heard.

“The Enterprise Barometer is a critical timely picture of the most important part of our economy – small and micro businesses and the self-employed – 99% of all enterprises.”

Mr McQuillan added: “These valuable insights must be discussed and understood so that we can adapt the enterprise support ecosystem to help our local small businesses to survive and thrive.

“More than 3000 early stage and established micro and small businesses are engaging with the Enterprise NI network on a weekly basis. They are the lifeblood of our local communities and we must not neglect that in the uncertain and volatile period ahead.”

When asked about Brexit, 77% of the Barometer respondents say that Brexit (in any form) will impact their business with 40% believing that the impact will be severe and 52% very concerned about the potential of a ‘no-deal’ exit happening.  Only around 1 in 4 (24%) have implemented any Brexit related preparation.

Mr McQuillan continued: “Enterprise NI want to work with other key stakeholders in enterprise support to call for a NI Enterprise & Entrepreneurship strategy to be central to future economic strategy in a future programme for government. There has been nothing in place for close to 15 years.

It is crucial that our politicians return to Stormont and form a fully functioning Executive. There will be a heavy workload on those Ministers to restore confidence and to provide leadership, strategy and vision for the business and wider community. In its absence our civil servants must be empowered to make both short and long term financial decisions and that the totally inadequate system of one year budgets in brought to an end as a matter of urgency.

“Unless we have a focused plan in place with the aim of increasing the number of quality start-ups and increasing the number of well-run businesses that survive and thrive – we will jeopardise local community prosperity, local social cohesion, local health and well-being and we will not generate meaningful jobs or stop the damaging exit of young talent.

“We need to adapt our approach to the development and support of enterprise in Northern Ireland in a structured way, to impact economically but more importantly socially.”