Sunday, April 3, 2011


Earlier this week, a new initiative was launched to encourage greater entrepreneurship across the UK.
Start-up Britain, backed by the UK Government as well as 60 global brands such as Axa, Barclays, BlackBerry and Google, as well as the Government, will offer up to £1,500 worth of special offers to people setting up a new business.

It will also support competitions to encourage greater entrepreneurship, offer entrepreneurial work placements and provide free mentoring to those looking to start a new venture.

Sir Richard Branson, one of the backers of the initiative, rightly said that “firing up a new generation of entrepreneurs will be a crucial part of our recovery and essential for creating sustainable growth in Britain over the next decade and beyond.”

Yet, in Wales, there is a sense of déjà vu about all of this.

Back in 1999, the private sector led Entrepreneurship Action Plan (EAP) was launched as the first regional enterprise strategy of its kind in the World.

True, it was administered by the Welsh Development Agency (WDA), but fully involved business, higher education and voluntary bodies in its design and implementation.

Its success is clearly demonstrated by the fact that, between the period 2002 and 2004, the number of new enterprise births in Wales went up from 8,970 to 11,525, an increase of 28 per cent. The EAP, with its strategy for increasing entrepreneurial activity, was at its zenith during this period before being closed down by the Welsh Assembly Government in 2005.

And what has happened since?

During the period 2004-2009, Wales then experienced a 28 per cent decrease in the number of new businesses being created in Wales. In contrast, the average decline in the number of new business births across the UK as a whole was 15.7 per cent whilst the number of new firm starts in Scotland had actually increased by 2.4 per cent over this five year period .

In terms of employment, this fall in the number of new business starts has meant that around 10,000 fewer businesses have been created in Wales since 2004, impacting directly upon the number of new jobs within the private sector economy and a loss in turnover to the Welsh economy of around a billion pounds.

It cannot be a coincidence that the decline in the business start-up rate began after the abolition of the Entrepreneurship Action Plan (EAP) for Wales and the merger of the WDA into WAG’s Department of Economy and Transport.

Whilst creating a more entrepreneurial Wales was at the heart of the WDA’s mission, predominantly through the successful implementation of the EAP and its promotion of an enterprise culture, it has since been relegated to the fringes of economic policy.

This is despite the proud fact that Wales was light years ahead of any other part of Europe in terms of developing an effective regional enterprise strategy, a competitive advantage that was thrown away because of the whims of politicians and policymakers who failed to understand the long term strategy needed to create an environment in which entrepreneurs are encouraged and supported to flourish and create wealth and employment.

Clearly, something has gone drastically wrong for Wales to go from having a high rate of entrepreneurial activity driven by one of the most admired entrepreneurship strategies in Europe (and which was copied by the European Commission itself) to having one of the worst performances for business start-ups in the UK.

Entrepreneurship needs to be one of the major driving forces behind the Welsh economy as we emerge out of recession. Whilst I hope that we will have a government after May that would be bold enough to admit the mistakes of the past and reintroduce the EAP immediately, I have become too cynical in my old age to imagine that the pinstriped army that advises ministers would be so bold and imaginative.

So, like Start-up Britain, perhaps what we need is to get the private sector in Wales to drive forward such an initiative. Could we, under a Start-Up Wales brand, see major brands supporting new businesses in our economy?

Would Admiral be prepared to offer reduced discounted insurance to new firms? Could BT Wales provide free broadband for the first 12 months of a new business?

What about some marketing support from organisations such as MediaWales?

Given that lack of financial skills is the key reason as to why half of businesses fail within the first three years, would large accountancy companies in Wales such as PWC, Deloitte’s and Grant Thornton be prepared to offer simple training to entrepreneurs on the basics of finance?

Could law firms such as Eversheds, Morgan Cole, Capital Law and Hugh James together provide a free legal helpline to those starting a new venture? What about the Welsh branches of banks such as HSBC, Lloyds, NatWest, Barclays and Santander coming together to organize a national business plan competition for young entrepreneurs?

Would our top entrepreneurs, such as Sir Terry Matthews, Steve Morgan, Henry Engelhardt and Laura Tenison be prepared to give their time as entrepreneurial ambassadors to encourage and enthuse the next generation of business tycoons?

The list of what can be done to help develop a greater entrepreneurial spirit and culture in Wales is endless.

Given the shameful decline in the number of new businesses being created over the last six years, perhaps the time has come for the private sector in Wales to step up to the plate and do what the Welsh government is unable or unwilling to do.

Certainly, it could only benefit the Welsh economy if our business community chose to take up this challenge.