Tuesday, July 3, 2012


When the great American politician Benjamin Franklin famously said that “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately”, I am sure that the future of small businesses never even entered his mind.

Yet, in an economic future where savings and efficiencies seem to be driving the strategies of many firms, it would seem that one option that should be seriously considered by smaller businesses is to work together to create new opportunities and bring down costs.

One way of doing this, as highlighted this week by the Wales Co-operative Centre, is through the establishment of a co-operative consortium. This is a co-operative that is owned and controlled by a group of people or organisations that then enables those involved to come together to share costs, services or a common facility to help members improve their business performance. As a result, businesses can share experiences and risk, increase buying power, share the costs of ‘backroom’ services such as bookkeeping, work together on joint marketing campaigns, and ultimately reduce costs.

Within Wales, most of the focus on co-operative consortia has focused on specific business sectors and this has enabled business working in the same industry to work together to achieve objectives that cannot be achieved by working in isolation. One sector that has been at the forefront of such consortia for decades is the food and drink sector, especially through agriculturally based co-operatives that have brought farm producers together, especially in industries such as dairy and meat. However, the Welsh Co-operative Centre has helped companies in smaller niche areas to come together for mutual benefit.

For example, the Welsh Perry and Cider Society is a consortium of businesses that have come together to promote the manufacture and consumption of one the fastest growing drinks segments in the UK. With over thirty cider producers in Wales, the consortia has employed a development officer to provide technical support on the management of orchards and harvesting, quality control, encouraging collaborative and co-operative working practices. She is also adding value to the orchard owners and growers through marketing and branding initiatives that benefit all the members. Tourism is also a sector where groups such as hoteliers’ associations have long been in existence within traditional holiday areas throughout Wales. But with the move towards more specialised tourism offerings with consumers demanding something different, a co-operative set up in mid-Wales has shown how a small town can put itself on the world map by getting the community to work together.

In the small town of Llanwrtyd Wells, a group of businesses calling themselves Green Events have developed a new approach to tourism with the aim of differentiate the area from other destinations. This has been largely achieved by creating a number of distinct events that have put the town on the map, including the world famous Man vs Horse Marathon and the World Bog Snorkelling Championships, as well as stone skimming championships and mountain biking competitions. As a result, the consortium, has succeeded in creating a strong global brand for this small spa town and local businesses and volunteers who are part of the group now run all the events. Certainly it is a model that many other towns in Wales should consider replicating to boost their own local economies. However, it is not only traditional sectors that are benefiting from this business model.

In the creative industries sector, one of the best examples of this is Craft in the Bay, established by the Makers Guild in Wales. This is a highly successful retail gallery situated in Cardiff Bay that has been running as a co-operative venture since 1997. It brings together seventy members, many individual craftspeople, who get the opportunity to display their work within the gallery. They also spend an agreed number of hours working there each year to reduce running costs and so benefiting all those within the consortium. Therefore, there are plenty of opportunities for many small businesses and the self-employed to come together to benefit from working together. 

For example, recruitment agencies that specialise in certain sectors or occupations could co-operate in providing workers for larger firms with differing needs. Or a consortia of electricians and plumbers could work together to provide a one-stop shop approach to services to the home or for other businesses.

Certainly, the possibilities for getting businesses to work in Wales are endless if only entrepreneurs would stop looking as every other business in their sector as a competitor but as a potential partner in a consortium where the sum of the parts is potentially greater than the whole.