The best business advice, opinion, news and expertise in Greater Manchester and further afield.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Friday Guest Blog - Should you Employ Someone who Held a Much Higher Level Role in the Past?

By Lyndsey Meredith, Director of ethical recruitment company Meredith Consultancy Services

This is a somewhat controversial question and everyone will have different opinions on this, so I suggest we look at it from both sides and let you make up your own mind.

There are a lot of talented people out there at the moment who are currently un-employed. A lot of them have held high level positions in the past on good salaries and for one reason or another are now looking at lower paid lower level jobs.

In this case many may have been made redundant and are happy to work their way up again for the right role or the types of roles that they used to hold simply do not exist anymore. Alternatively they may be looking at a lower level role for other reasons, including having less stress or more life balance.

Employers are taking two different and opposing views on applications from these types of candidates. The first and more popular view in my experience is that the employer sees these candidates as over-qualified for the position and so the employer assumes that they are “just looking for a job for now” and will leave when another role more befitting their experience comes along. The second view from employers is that they are getting a lot of experience for their money and are actually getting a great deal that they would not have got prior to the recession.

I will let you take your own view. However, advice for employers in this position:

1) Assess the candidate on their ability to do THIS job.

2) Ask the candidate how THIS job fits in with their long-term goals and aspirations.

3) Ensure that the salary for THIS job is adequate for the candidate to live on.

4) Play devil’s advocate! Ask the candidate what they would do in a few months’ time if a job at their previous level came along.

5) Ensure that the candidate will not continue looking for employment once employed with you.

Unfortunately there are no guarantees when it comes to people but go with your gut feeling. There are some fantastic and talented candidates out there actively seeking work - don’t discount anyone until you have at least met with them and asked the above questions.

Meredith Consultancy Services is a local, independent ethical recruitment agency. Based in Cheadle, it supplies high quality professional staff to companies across the North West.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Friday Guest Blog

By Neil Kinnon, General Manager, TransGlobal Payment Solutions Ltd.

For most businesses the trading journey at some time leads to making or receiving payments in a foreign currency. Whilst most payments within the UK are fast and reliable, with both transparent and low pricing, the same is not true when transacting in foreign currencies. Foreign payments have traditionally been the domain of the UK banks that use their relationships with other banks around the world to exchange currency and execute the payments. Although there have been massive shifts in the direction of trade, little has changed in the last 50 years in the ways banks handle your payments. The key challenges with this old network is that it moves money slowly, it does not allow track and trace of payments and with multiple banks in the chain, each one adds to the cost of the transaction. If you add foreign exchange into the mix, you will also find a large chunk of your intended payment gets gobbled up as it moves around the world.

Whilst it would seem banks are the necessary plumbing to make international payments and foreign currency exchange, they do not offer the only choice for businesses. As banks have been slow to react to the changes in global trade, non-bank providers have risen to the challenge and now provide much better routes for your global money movement.

Non-bank providers fall into two broad categories. Foreign exchange (FX) providers such as TransGlobal Payment Solutions and internet payment service providers such as PayPal. In general the internet service is good for low value and one-off payments, whilst larger or regular payments abroad should be handled by specialist FX providers.

When choosing a provider (or comparing one with your bank) the following criteria will help in making your decision:

1. How good is their global payment network? Can they make payments directly into the country you wish to pay in without using multiple banks and without having to use costly wire transfers

2. How transparent is the pricing? Do you understand exactly how much you will pay for your payment? Many FX brokers offer free payments yet hide the cost of currency conversion, meaning the total cost of the payment is hidden. Ask the provider to contract to a payment fee, an agreed currency exchange rate and agreed fees should anything go wrong with the payment

3. Do they provide a simple, free to use on-line system for payments that checks your payment details are correct and provides clear pricing on each transaction? Error checking will reduce the high cost of repairs should a payment be rejected.

Following these three simple steps and you will both simplify and reduce the cost of your international payments.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Better skills policy must be at the heart of an economic strategy for the North

By David McKeith, Chairman of Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce

Friday saw the publication of the Northern Economic Futures Commission (NEFC) final report. The two top line messages are that the northern economy is too large to ignore and thus revitalising it is important for national prosperity. Spurring on Northern growth is dependent on not one silver bullet but a combination of improving skills, infrastructure, innovation, investment and governance.

Improving skills is the most important of these drivers for growth in areas like the North of England. The OECD, Lord Heseltine’s review and the BIS Select Committee agree as does the Richard Review of Apprenticeships, published last week. Improving skill levels in the northern economy has particular challenges. For instance we have:

• a higher proportion of people with no qualifications at all and a lower proportion of people with high-level skills in comparison with the national average

• outward migration of recently qualified graduates

• a mismatch between skills supply and the demands of local employers

• a lack of demand for skills among employers, the poor utilisation of skills that are available, and the lack of clear training budgets and plans for staff

• a lack of information about the current a future shape of the economy and the kinds of skills that will be required

A key factor in tackling these challenges is increasing the supply of high-quality apprenticeship places and equipping young people with the skills needed for gainful employment. The National Apprenticeship Service and its partners probably need to double the number of young people in advanced apprenticeships by 2015 to 60,000. To do this we need to shift funding out of intermediate apprenticeship places for the over-25s and undergo a major expansion of pre-apprenticeship training programmes in northern further education colleges. The development of local apprenticeship hubs or associations that bring together employers, training providers and trade unions to plan and deliver apprenticeship places is helping with this.

More fundamentally, if we are to better match local future employer needs with local skills training provision, local authorities and employers must have more say and greater control over public funding for apprenticeships and training. Localised approaches to skills policy have been highly effective in areas such as Michigan, Brandenburg and south Netherlands. By devolving a sizeable proportion of skills and welfare-to-work funding to local authorities and their partners in city-regions, we can replicate this approach. Local stakeholders are best placed to identify leading vocational centres of excellence focused on the key growth sectors and aligning public resources from all levels to deliver more coordinated and effective skills provision.

In Manchester, in response to recent initial changes to skills policy and the associated funding opportunities, Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce and New Economy (the economic development unit of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority) have created a joint venture to develop a unified Skills and Employment Hub.

This will secure greater ownership of, and influence over, the skills system by employers, particularly SMEs. This partnership is also seeking a more effective alignment of the skills system with economic opportunities so that it can respond to current and future labour market demand at a city region level. We are determined to develop one skills service for Greater Manchester with strategic leadership from both employers and the LEP’s Skills and Employment Partnership so that investments can be coordinated to deliver the maximum value and service.

To enable initiatives like this to happen across the North, devolution of budgets for adult further education, skills and apprenticeships must be accompanied by increasing the capacity for gathering robust labour market intelligence at the local level and the taking of further steps to integrate employment and skills policy. The latter could include giving city regions greater responsibility for co-commissioning the Work Programme.

While skills will not grab the headlines, its effect on the attention-grabbing unemployment and GDP figures should not be underestimated. Skills policy is not hugely exciting, nor is it without complexity. It is though crucial to sustaining a thriving northern economy.

David McKeith is a commissioner on the NEFC and Chairman of Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Friday Guest Blog - Exporting for the First Time

By Peter Donnelly of RSM Tenon

As with all business opportunities, if well researched, developed and planned, forays into new and different markets can be great opportunities – but failure at any of the key stages can place the business at risk.

Businesses intending to enter new markets abroad should:

• Research the market for your product or service – legal, ethical and cultural issues can all have an impact. For example, certain ingredients in a product may make it illegal or culturally unacceptable in some markets.

• Consider how you will market and sell into the country – agents, distributors, joint ventures or subsidiaries can all have a place to play.

• Consider the tax, accounting and regulatory regimes – don’t assume it will be the same as here – it’s often not!

• Consider how you will finance the business when you go offshore. If you are using asset-based lending, will your lender still work with you when you are owed money from foreign companies? Some will and some won’t.

• Consider how management of this new market fits with the management team’s commitments. Distance and cultural issues are often underestimated when it comes to time required to support a new venture and it’s important that the new does not damage the old.

In summary, any business considering international activity should seek professional advice at the earliest opportunity to ensure the best possible outcome. There is also help available from government bodies such as UKTI who are charged with helping UK business abroad, and who offer regular trade missions abroad to give businesses an insight into building markets overseas.

There will be more advice about exporting for the first time in the Business Doctor section of December's 53 Degrees magazine.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Friday Guest Blog: The Changing Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) Landscape

By Julaine Speight of First Internet

I believe that the SEO landscape of 2012 is hugely different to what it has been in the past. In this blog, I’ll explain how times have changed, what you need to consider when taking care of your website and the key strategies for link building.

When considering the changing SEO landscape of 2012, there’s almost too much to talk about. Over the past year Google has rolled out algorithm updates, which have put into practice all the principles they have always deemed important when ranking websites. However, the effects of these updates (you may have heard the terms Panda or Penguin knocking about) have wreaked havoc on the rankings of many websites, delivering results which aren’t perhaps as fair as Google might have us believe. Whether we like it or not, Google is still in charge and if you follow their principles then your site should stand a good chance of ranking highly.

Content is still king, and more so than ever. However, any attempt to “manipulate” the rankings using this content will almost definitely backfire. Keyword stuffing (the over-use of internal links and specific region-based landing pages) are a definite no-no. The content of your website needs to be the best content you can put together. It should be relevant, engaging and informative for the visitor. Important aspects of a website include FAQs and case studies , both of which are extremely helpful to the visitor and therefore will help the SEO of your website. Most importantly the content should look as natural as possible- making it both interesting and informative for the visitor.

Another tip is that over optimisation could kill your rankings. Google is more sensitive than ever to the over optimisation of your website. Anything that looks unnatural both on and offsite will wave a red flag to Google, something that could see your rankings completely disappear!

Whereas before your SEO company may have encouraged you to focus on a few important keywords, now if Google detects a heavy reliance on only a few phrases then it’s unlikely that you’ll rank for them. Spread your keyword net wider than you may have done in the past – it may take you longer to achieve the rankings you’re looking for but it will appear more natural to Google and will benefit you in the long run.

Offsite SEO should look as natural as anything you would put on your website. Many website owners found themselves saddled with bad link warnings through Google Webmaster Tools, which first came through in April, and have since been trying to get these bad links removed. Google has now introduced the Disavow tool for anyone struggling to remove all of their bad links – however this tool has the potential to backfire. Links, even if considered lower value, are still helpful for your SEO and disavowing too many of your links could potentially undo many years of good SEO work to build up your rankings.

Consult a SEO expert if you are concerned about bad links pointing to your website. They’ll be able to examine your “link profile” (links pointing to your site) and advise you on the best course of action.

Google’s SEO principles haven’t really changed; they’ve simply become stricter about enforcing the above rules, making it essential that your website is up to scratch and delivering the best possible results!

Friday, 16 November 2012

Friday Guest Blog - Legal Advice on Private School Fees

By Paula Milburn, Family Partner at North West law firm Brabners Chaffe Street

There has been a marked increase in the last twelve months in parents seeking specific legal advice about private school fees. There are real areas of concern over:

• Parents falling out with grandparents who agreed to contribute towards the costs of private education and have then changed their views as a result of falling out with the parents over contact arrangements.

• Parents experiencing financial pressures as a result of the economic downturn and school fees adding to those pressures. Financial worries are one of the major causes of marital breakdown. When school fees are added to the equation this can be the trigger that leads to separation.

• Parents disagreeing over private education or the timing of private education. Some parents are adamant that private is best and want their children to be privately educated from nursery education onwards, whereas others are keen to limit fees to secondary education given the quality of local primary state education in their area.

• Parents disagreeing over the type of private education for their children – this can sometimes be tied in with differences in religious views or over the type of school that would best meet their child’s needs. Some parents believe in “hot-housing”, whereas their spouses can be equally adamant that this type of educational environment or boarding will not meet their particular child’s needs.

If there is a marital breakdown the whole issue of private education is tied up with standards of living. If parents are pursuing state education then, for example, a mother may argue that her housing need is greater than if the children were being educated privately because of the need to purchase a house in a good school catchment area. If children are being educated privately then the parent paying the child support could argue that there is a less money available to pay spousal maintenance, whereas the parent looking after the child would argue that there is a greater need to provide financial support because it is essential to have the right house to go with the right school [think of sleepovers] and the money to pay for the school extras, ski trips etc.

In either scenario the children need all the trimmings and, whatever the level of income, parents are always extremely anxious to avoid their children’s standard of living suffering on marital breakdown.

Top tips for parents:

• Think about the costs of educating siblings. Is it an option to only privately educate the eldest child or the child with specialist needs such as dyslexia? If private education for one child is not an option then parents need to prepare by looking at schools that offer sibling discounts.

• If school fee plans are not an option then extended family may be willing to help with school fees in tax efficient ways such as income distributions from trusts, ISA savings and as part of estate planning and lifetime giving. If parents are relying upon extended family help to pay school fees think about asking for the monies to be ring fenced or put into a school fees fund to avoid priorities changing in future and get advice about how historical income distributions from trusts might impact on divorce settlements.

• Look at how fees would be paid in the event of death or critical illness and consider the impact of the costs of various insurance premiums when looking at the affordability of school fees.

• And finally, if parents do separate they should not let the marital dispute get out of hand – the more the solicitors get in fees the more there is to find to pay school fees or university costs. This point may seem obvious but it is surprising how often couples are prepared to spend thousands of pounds in legal fees arguing over who should pay school fees with no one stopping to think that the child is nearly 16 so their remaining school fees will be less than the couple’s combined legal bill in resolving who should pay. A good solicitor will point that out!

Friday, 9 November 2012

Friday Guest Blog: R22 - The Final Countdown

By Eric Asquith - Renewable Technologies Manager, Ergro

R22 remains a very common refrigerant in EXISTING systems used by many air conditioning and process engineering users. From 2010 the regulation banned the use of virgin R22 as a top up refrigerant for maintenance and 2015 for recycled refrigerant.

From midnight on DECEMBER 31ST 2014 the sale and storage of R22 recycled and reclaimed refrigerant will be banned. Overnight this will make air conditioning units and process machines using R22 refrigerant unserviceable and leave unprepared businesses with un-operational buildings as soon as the equipment breaks down. Just as the once distant London Olympics were suddenly upon us, this legislation will catch unprepared companies out if action is not taken now. There are only two financial years left to prepare for any required modifications and by seeking guidance now, companies will gain time to minimise any disruption caused by upgrading or replacing existing equipment.

What are the changes in legislation?

During the 1990s a programme was implemented to phase out ozone depleting substances, starting with the most harmful CFCs and then expanding to include the more commonly known and used CFCs such as R22. Over the years this rolling programme has had a deliberately increasing impact on UK companies, most recently in 2010 when the supply and storage of virgin HCFCs was outlawed and only recycled or reclaimed HCFCs remained legal. At the end of 2014 the legislation will once again extend its remit, this time to ban the sale or storage of ozone depleting HCFCs ( including R22 ) entirely.

How does it affect existing sustems?

From the end of 2014 you will no longer be able to source replacement refrigerant or repair and service your system if it uses R22 refrigerant. It is expected by all in the industry that as the legislation changes draw nearer the demand for conversion and replacement of existing systems will increase. As a result, order lead times will grow, prices are likely to increase and correctly qualified engineers will be heavily in demand – to the extent that they may not be available when required and you will run the risk of having to use inferior workmanship.

The easy way to avoid this is to seek consultation now to determine the best way for your company to tackle this challenge.

What are the options?

Currently there are two.

Option 1 - Conversion

Conversion of your existing system to enable it to operate using a legal and often more efficient refrigerant is often the most cost effective solution to the impending changes as it gives you the opportunity to increase the system capacity and can lead up to savings of 50% against replacing the system.

Option 2 – Replacement

Some existing systems may be unsuitable for conversion or may be in need of replacing due to approaching the end of their life cycle. Despite the higher installation costs, replacement can lead to greater system efficiencies, lower maintenance requirements and reduced operating costs.

Whichever the option you choose the way forward is to plan ahead and do the work now and where capital expenditure is needed but not possible, Ergro can introduce you to affordable leasing options.

Both solutions are, however heavily dependent on site installation conditions and age of the plant and a consultation is recommended to determine the state of the system.

Contact information:

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

A Rolling Stone?

By Chris Fletcher, Director of Policy and Communications at Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce.

Last week saw the release of “No Stone Unturned – in pursuit of growth” the not so catchily titled report from Lord Heseltine into boosting competitiveness in the UK. Weighing in at 228 pages with an accompanying supplementary document at 42 pages, it isn’t something that could be classed as a light read. Bearing in mind though that both Vince Cable and George Osborne have this at the top of their must-read list and following the Chamber’s input into the review (see pg 191), I have found myself casting more than a glance at it over the last few days.

So in amongst the 89 recommendations, what does it actually say and will it ever make the leap from being a substantial wish list into government policy?

In amongst the autobiographical references to Lord Heseltine’s career there are some tangible issues highlighted as warranting attention and funding to kickstart economic growth. Many of these are areas we have identified from members’ concerns, such as transport, skills and energy amongst others.

So, no real change from several dozen other reports over the years. However where Heseltine then goes is where many politicians fear to tread - looking at what local structures will be required to help identify, plan, demand and manage the funding to tackle the above issues.

He suggests using a single pot of funding (£49bn) and getting re-energized and re-funded Local Enterprise Partnerships to act as strategic bodies to develop local growth plans and bid for the funds. Chambers of Commerce have been picked out for a starring role in the process, given new statutory powers to act as the principal independent mechanism for business support and the main engagement organisation between local businesses and decision makers. In other words you tell us what you want and we’ll go away and make it happen.

On the face of it there does seem to be a healthy dose of common sense to all this. At a time when many are demanding bold and decisive actions to jump start the economy, there’s certainly plenty to choose from within the report.

Having said that, in the absence of any obvious growth plan from government at present scribbles on a fag packet would seem impressive. Questions remain about how quickly and at what cost the significant and required shifts in power from Whitehall to the town hall could be achieved. With Greater Manchester already having a pot of government funding via the City Deal to point at areas that need it, would the extra funds from a future incarnation of what Heseltine proposes make a difference especially with all the extra local government baggage that may be attached to it?

So, plenty to think about for Messrs Cable and Osborne. I suppose the big question will be who will make the decision on whether any of this ever sees the light of day again, with the Treasury ruling the roost in these times of austerity? Is there a pick and mix option and could the best bits be delivered individually or is it an all or nothing plan? More importantly will this get sucked into the whirlpool of indecision that seems to infect all levels of decision making at present?

The first test will be 5th December when the Chancellor delivers his Autumn Statement. From the amount of references that he makes to the report, we could probably start to gauge how well this sits with government.

Whether every stone has been turned over in pursuit of an effective and deliverable growth plan remains to be seen. Lord Heseltine seems to have had a good go and, coupled with our constant relay of your ideas to central government backed up by the evidence from the Quarterly Economic Survey, it is increasingly worrying that the present course of action seems to be the only option. How government reacts over the coming weeks and months will be interesting to watch. The clock is ticking, stay tuned….

Friday, 2 November 2012

Friday Guest Blog

By Shiva Shadi – Partner in the Employment Law Department at Davis Blank Furniss

We’ve had a number of enquiries lately from firms thinking about redundancies due to declining orders, but are confused as to whether apprentices should be treated any differently to employees.

Employers have certain additional responsibilities for an apprentice employed under a “contract of apprenticeship” as opposed to an apprentice employed under an “apprenticeship agreement”.

Apprenticeship agreements can be treated by an employer in the same way as an ordinary contract of employment and they do not benefit from enhanced rights when it comes to termination - although you must ensure that you comply with the normal standards set out in employee legislation. However, in order to fall into this category such an agreement must comply with the conditions set out in the ASCLA 2009.

If the primary purpose of a contract of apprenticeship is training then any work that is carried out by the apprentices for you is secondary. As a result, you cannot dismiss an apprentice on the same grounds that you could an ordinary employee. Current case law confirms that you cannot terminate an apprentice’s contract on the grounds of redundancy unless the company is closing down or there is a fundamental change in the business. Such apprentices should not be included in a redundancy consultation procedure as you have set out.

Apprentices employed under contracts of apprenticeship have enhanced protection from early termination of their contract. In such circumstances, a tribunal may award them damages for loss of earnings and training for the remainder of the term of the contract and for also loss of future career prospects. Before deciding whether an apprentice could be considered for redundancy, it is crucial to establish the exact terms of their agreement. If there is a dispute as to which category of apprenticeship an individual falls into then it may be prudent to take further advice before further steps are taken.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Friday Guest Blog

By Phil Cusack, newly-elected President of Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce

This position – President of the largest Chamber of Commerce in the country and in my city region as well - could be nothing other than a great honour. I am surprised and hugely flattered that you have asked me to do it. Particularly so since we have just had such a capable, articulate and intelligent thinker as Martin Douglas as President. I believe that he has helped to move us forward as an organisation and I would like to offer my personal thanks for his two-year term of office.

I’m sure I’m going to need support from Neil Smith as Vice-President and I know that he’ll continue to do whatever he can to ensure that this Chamber of Commerce is pointing in the right direction to help its members.

Not that there is really a question about this with David McKeith as one of the most competent Chairmen I have ever worked with as well as a tirelessly effective Chief Executive in Clive Memmott.

What I’m really saying is that I believe that there is an outstanding team here. This Chamber of Commerce is going through huge organisational and structural change at the moment and all the signs are that the changes are being handled sensitively, efficiently and in a way which I believe will result in a stronger and sustainable Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce.

Martin has taken corporate social responsibility forward as one of his key themes – we need to continue this with just as much enthusiasm. We need to help Chamber businesses to work in the community but we also need to clearly communicate the practical and lasting business benefits to them of doing that.

As I know Martin does, I also believe that our affiliation with the British Chambers of Commerce is critically important in taking us forward in areas such as further developing our already successful international trade service and lobbying Government at the highest levels on issues that are of critical importance to businesses in this region such as investment in hugely needed infrastructure. The BCC’s objective of encouraging Government investment in roads, rail, aviation, ports, digital infrastructure and skills development must resonate strongly in a region such as ours and must be wholeheartedly supported by this Chamber working closely in tandem with them.

I will not for a moment though pretend that things are going to be easy.

I cannot see our economy returning to pre-2007 levels of economic activity and growth for many years. Past global banking difficulties are now manifesting themselves in the crisis we are now seeing in the Euro-market and there is a slow-down in the Asia Pacific economy. Both of these will improve over time and we can expect to see some gradual growth – indeed, we know that non-oil GDP is now growing again, albeit slowly and there are still signs of cautious and guarded confidence in and around this City.

But in this part of the world, the engine for growth is going to be the non-financial business sector. Our job is to make sure that economic growth happens and that the business sector in our city-region is in the best possible condition to make it do just that.

So it is a key ambition of mine to help to ensure that we do two very simple sounding things – support the small and attract the large.

Small and medium sized businesses need to know that we are here to help them grow, develop and remain healthy. We need to carry on the immensely successful work we have already been doing in this area across Greater Manchester. In addition though, we need to get across the message that we can work with large businesses to allow them to be heard loudly and clearly at the highest levels of Government and to develop mechanisms to allow them to work best here, to make the best business contacts here and to collaborate to build business models which match some of those seen in the leading second cities in Europe and the rest of the world.

This is going to be my leading theme – to help this Chamber to be fully recognised as the foremost private sector organisation in Greater Manchester for large national and global businesses to work together , to share ‘best practice,’ to celebrate successes and to gain direct access to Government to press those issues which affect them most and to encourage those changes which will help them as businesses most. I would like us to create a ‘top table’ that they cannot afford not to be at.

I can’t make any great promises at this stage but one I will make is that I will do my absolute best for this Chamber and for its members during my term of office.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Friday Guest Blog: ‘Why didn’t you ask me first?’

By Mike Gibson, Connectivity Associates Ltd

I took a call the other day from a chap called Mr Angry of that lovely little village of Upper Gumtry. He’d bought a nice piece of farmland with the intention of building himself a house, but Traffport Council refused permission and Mr Pickles had just dismissed his appeal. He’d spent all his pension money and was back where he started.

‘Why didn’t you ask me first?’ I said. I’d have told you not to buy the site because it’s in the Green Belt and the floodplain of the River Irksum, where there’s no chance of getting planning permission for a house. Then we could have found a more suitable site, I could have got you planning permission and you’d still have money left to build your house. ‘I’d better get back to work,’ he said.

It was a sunny morning when the phone rang and Mr Arkwright’s voice filled the room. ‘I need your help’, he said. ‘Salchester City Council have told me the planning application for my factory extension needs a planning statement, a design and access statement, a transport assessment, a ground contamination report, a flood risk assessment and a bat survey and there’s every chance they’ll refuse it!’

‘What are you proposing’, I asked. ‘An extension to my production area, right in the middle of my complex where it can’t be seen by anyone and where it won’t affect any car parking or circulation space’, he said. ‘How big is it?’ I asked. ‘950 square metres he replied’. ‘Then what you’re proposing is permitted development – you don’t need planning permission for it’, I said. ‘I should have asked you first’, was his blunt reply. I’d made his day.

Mr Smoothie knew all about planning – or so he thought. He’d told his architects what he wanted and instructed them to submit his application for a retail scheme in a conservation area. He assumed Rochside Council would love his scheme, they’d always said they needed more shops and, after all, he was only going to demolish ten buildings. Then he called me. ‘They’re recommending my application for refusal’, he said, ‘What can I do?’ ‘First’, I said, ‘Let’s look at the relevant planning policies and see if your scheme complies with them and, if not, we can revise the scheme or provide the necessary evidence to justify what you’re proposing’.

Together, we justified the amount of retail floorspace, revised the scheme to retain some of the buildings and avoid the loss of a protected tree and justified the loss of other buildings on grounds of public benefits. I then met with the Chief Planning Officer and a chap from English Heritage. I came back to tell Mr Smoothie that his application would now be recommended for approval. ‘I should have asked you first,’ he said.

So, if you are proposing a new development, be it a new building, a redevelopment or a change of use, please come and ask me first.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Friday Guest Blog: How Limited Liability Partnerships Work

By Sonio Singh, Partner in the Corporate Department at Davis Blank Furniss

Limited Liability Partnerships were introduced in England and Wales in 2001 as a means of combining the flexibility of partnerships together with the protection of limited liability for their members. Although LLPs are still not used as widely as a corporate vehicle, they are particularly useful for professional partnerships including firms of solicitors.

The primary features of an LLP are that it is a body corporate (albeit taxed as a partnership) and therefore a separate legal entity to its members. Accordingly, the members of an LLP have limited liability in that in most circumstances they do not need to meet the LLP’s liabilities. However, an LLP has the management flexibility of a partnership and the members can freely agree profit share, decision making as well as appointment and retirement issues.

The Limited Liability Partnership Regulations 2001 contain provisions relevant to the assignment of an interest in an LLP, subject to the consent of the other remaining LLP members. The transfer of shares in an LLP also appears to be permitted by Section 7 of the Limited Liability Partnership Act 2000. However, there does appear to be an absence of a statutory definition regarding the “share” of an LLP.

Whilst an LLP Agreement will detail the members’ financial and corporate rights and duties - such as rights to profit/capital and an obligation to contribute capital/attendance and voting rights - there is little certainty regarding this issue. However a “share” in an LLP would appear to encompass these rights and duties.

Although the law is not definitive in this area, if an LLP member is seeking to transfer all their financial & corporate governance rights and duties, the usual course will be for an incoming member (“transferee”) to be admitted at the same time as the transferor leaves the LLP – in accordance with the LLP Agreement. The retiring member would then receive a repayment of their capital contribution together with their share of any profits simultaneously to the new member making a contribution to capital.

Whilst the statutory regulations state that the consent of all the members of the LLP is required for the admission of the incoming member, a comprehensive LLP Agreement will usually contain clear provisions on the exit of a member from the LLP, their financial rights and other restrictions. There is also a duty to notify the Registrar of Companies regarding the change in the LLP membership.

A more unusual scenario is where an LLP member is seeking to assign their share in the LLP to someone who will not necessarily become a member. The usual course is for the assignor to continue as a member of the LLP and to exercise voting rights etc in accordance with the directions of the assignee acquiring the share.

This is not necessarily a clean solution and the assignor will have concerns that they continue to have contractual obligations pursuant to the LLP Agreement and statutory obligations without reward. The solution may therefore be to obtain the consent of the members to the assignment of not only the financial interests in the LLP but also the managerial interest.

Limited Liability Partnerships continue to remain a specialist area and detailed advice is required if an LLP vehicle is appropriate for tax or legal purposes. A robust and detailed LLP Agreement is – of course - essential in these cases.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Partly Political Broadcasts

By Chris Fletcher - Policy and Communications Director at Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce

Following on from the Lib Dems in Brighton last week and ahead of the Conservatives in Birmingham it was Manchester’s turn in the political spotlight this last week with the city playing host, again, to the Labour Party Conference.

With a significantly smaller “secure zone” than recent years, which allowed traffic to continue to flow through most of the City Centre and apart from one or two key speeches, for many people it would have been very easy to have missed this completely. Whether this is a good or bad thing is a debate for another time.

Whilst our focus is definitely on business issues, a key part of the work we do brings us into the political world from time to time. When we have members complaining about red tape or skills or business support we have to make sure we represent these views to the decision makers and ask for change.

So, from time to time I find myself wandering the corridors of power armed with the latest feedback from members on the issues that are having most impact on them.

But it doesn’t all revolve around Whitehall. Whilst much of the decision making goes on there (and beyond), it is important that we don’t forget that we have some very influential people on our doorstep.

Over the last 12 months the Chamber has begun a series of quarterly briefings for Greater Manchester’s MPs. It is a great opportunity to brief our local MPs, from all parties, on the issues we are working on for our members as part of Action For Business. The most recent briefing took place on Thursday in the surroundings of the Library at Manchester Cathedral and we took the opportunity to send through, beforehand, a selection of comments from members that have been made at our Action For Business Forums in the last few weeks.

We covered a wide range of subjects from issues around support for business following the disappearance of the RDA to wider economic issues and looking at some key areas for action going forward. One area of particular importance was around infrastructure investment and the role of the construction sector. Something we will be picking up at our next Property & Construction Lunch on 23rd November.

Look out for more information on our work with MPs in November’s 53 Degrees. Before then if you want to start to play your part in highlighting those local and not so local issues that are affecting your business make sure you come to one of our Action For Business Forums, book here: .

Whilst we can never guarantee that we can change the world for business, and we never would, without those initial conversations with our members we would be left with nothing to say when the opportunities come around to put the case for business to MPs, Ministers and others.

Friday Guest Blog: How to Beat Stamp Price Hikes

By David Hymers - Managing Director, Totalpost Services Plc

The cost of second class postage jumped by a massive 39% this year. Despite this, many businesses still rely on stamps rather than utilising franking machines.

I’ve worked in the postal industry for 40 years and from experience I know that businesses can make massive savings through utilising franking machines, however the savings possible have become more pronounced over recent years as the price of stamps has increased rapidly.

For example, companies that send as few as 8 second class standard letters per day will make a saving of £1.52 per day or an annual saving of £395.20p when using a entry level franking machine compared to using stamps. This saving can increase if the item is a large letter or packet. And this will offset the cost of the franking machine within a year.

Companies that send more mail than this will see increased savings very quickly. Royal Mail increased the minimum saving on franked mail from .07p in 2011 to .16p in 2012 to encourage customers to take advantage of the benefits with franked business mail.

Franking machine users receive a discount on every item of mail sent, saving 19p on every second class letter and 16p on every first class letter. This means a first class franked letter is now cheaper to send than a second class stamped letter.

We often help businesses that feel locked in to a franking machine contract. Each situation is different, but businesses don’t need to feel trapped as there are many options to enable customers to get onto a better lease.

For example, we dealt with one business that had been paying 500% more than they should have been for a low-level franking machine. Instead of paying £80 per quarter they were paying £80 per month and had been doing so for three years. We advised them on their options for getting out of the lease contract which include offsetting the settling cost or negotiating a rebate.

When embarking upon a franking machine contract businesses should be asking for a breakdown of costs on the lease, service costs, re-crediting charges and the ink.

One scam that we often see is where companies don’t tell businesses about the maintenance (which is required by Royal Mail regulations). Businesses then receive an inflated bill for maintenance that they were not expecting.

We also help companies that have an existing contract but require maintenance of their mailroom machinery. We have been handling mailroom maintenance contracts for a wide range of businesses of all sizes for many years.

Consumable costs can also be expensive, but there are good quality alternatives available. For example we manufacture our own alternative cartridges which have been approved by Royal Mail. Customers can save between 25% and 50% by using alternative cartridges in their franking machines.

It is useful to note that the use of alternative compatible franking machine cartridges is totally acceptable. In 2005 the Office of Fair Trading ruled that the use of alternative Royal Mail approved cartridges would not affect the machinery warranty in any way.

In summary, businesses that send out paper mail can make massive savings by using franking machines, particularly when also using approved alternative consumables and we are keen to help businesses realise these savings.

For more information visit or call 0845 4900 360.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Friday Guest Blog: Shareholders' Agreements

By Shahid Azam - Associate and Corporate Commercial Solicitor, Clough & Willis

I recently came into contact with a small company with three shareholders who had heard about Shareholders Agreements, but felt that because they agreed on everything, there wasn’t much point in having one drawn up.

A Shareholders Agreement is a specific agreement between shareholders which sets out how they intend dealing with the company. It is private document which is designed to prevent disputes and can plan for any eventualities that may damage the business; for example what would happen in the event of a Shareholder’s death, what if a shareholder who is also a director does not pull their weight, or what the plan would be if someone suffers long term ill health or sickness.

A Shareholders Agreement is also invaluable for those who have less than 51% of the shareholding as it can be agreed that certain key decisions have to receive unanimous agreement. An example of this would be if the company enters into major high value contracts.

They are also vital when a shareholder/director decides that he or she no longer wishes to participate in the management of the company. The Shareholders Agreement would give shareholders the ability to remove their colleague and have them return their shares to the company or to another shareholder.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Be Prepared

By Chris Fletcher - Policy and Communications Director, Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce

This Monday, 1st October, sees the second common commencement date of 2012 heralding new legislation and changes to employment laws. In line with the Government’s ambition to drive down red tape (one-in, one-out), there is not a deluge of new rules coming in, however the main one to be aware of is the official start of pension auto-enrolment.

This has been in development for several years and is a legacy from the previous Government aimed at ensuring that every worker has provision for retirement to offset the increasing burden on public pension funds.

The first phase of this is aimed at businesses with over 120,000 employees with the aim being that the staged roll out of the scheme will see all businesses included in the scheme by 2017 and any new start-ups included by 2018.

Auto-enrolment is a real double edged sword. On the one hand, looking longer term, it is necessary to help reduce the pension burden, on the other it is probably coming at the worst time possible as firms will have to find extra resources when they can probably least afford to. We’ve calculated that overall, once it is fully up and running, it will be costing Greater Manchester businesses £170m a year.

It is important that businesses are aware now of when they will fall under the terms of the scheme – some businesses will be running company pension schemes that will mean they already meet the minimum standards and requirements.

For most of our members this will be a couple of years away however it is always better to plan ahead now and be up to speed with what is required.

Full details of the scheme including the full list of staging dates can be found at: 

And if you want more information on all potential changes and how successful the one-in one-out system has been (including how much it has “saved” you), full details are here:

Friday, 21 September 2012

Friday Blog: Coming soon to a venue near you…..

By Chris Fletcher - Director of Policy and Communications at Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce

Over the last couple of days, I have delivered Action For Business Forums in Bury, Trafford and Rochdale in the first round of the Chamber’s new-look local networking meetings.

Just in case you have missed the news, all the Chamber’s local events, that’s 42 events throughout Greater Manchester, are now included as part of the membership package.

As one of the architects behind the move to this style of meeting designed not only to develop networking opportunities, but to get to grips with what issues are affecting our members, I’ve been really pleased with how things are going. There have been some lively discussions and some really good ideas put forward not just about what businesses want to see from government but how the Chamber can play a part in helping our members come together to support each other and grow in these challenging times.

We are currently running a call for action around what businesses want from the Chancellor in the Autumn Statement, due in December. Ideal material for one of our forums, and our members have certainly not let us down. Suggestions have ranged from closer integration with the Eurozone, to wanting firm commitments on major infrastructure projects - the latter is something we have been unequivocal on in our demands of government.

On the whole it does appear that businesses are keeping positive about the current situation. Indeed several members have specifically requested that we should do more to promote the positive. Something which I hoped we were doing already, but obviously we may need to re-visit this.

The only common negative feeling that I’ve come across has really been the deep rooted sense of frustration with government and other decision-makers. Is this really the best that they can do to help business and promote growth? Going off what our members are saying, efforts so far have fallen way short of expectations. QE is having no impact in the real world; funds to grow are still hard to track down – they do exist via many non-traditional sources, which many businesses are unaware of and the tinkering with planning and legislation is causing more confusion than it is solving.

This is what the forums are all about and why they are needed– they give us the ammunition we need to stand up and say what business needs and wants. As well as that, it also gives me a wealth of stories, ideas and experiences from the fantastic businesses we have as members.

So, if you want to talk business, do business and take action for business, book on to one of our future events here – we have your place reserved already by being a Chamber member and I look forward to seeing you.

If you’re not a member, but want a piece of the action, call our membership team on 0845 6029469.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Gutted with IBS at work? Don’t be…

By David Bailey – Managing Director, Medical Specialists Company Limited

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common condition of the digestive system that nearly all of us will have heard of in conversation. In fact, there is a probably good chance that you know somebody who is suffering from it. The symptoms include bloating, stomach cramps, constipation and diarrhoea. Statistics to have been released into the public domain in recent years go a huge way in demonstrating how underestimated the seriousness is of IBS in the workplace, the demographic of sufferers and the financial burden it can place on the NHS and society in general.

It is estimated that certain complicated IBS tests at hospitals can drain the NHS of £3,000 for each examination. It would appear than men are getting off lightly, with women accounting for 70% of the 5,000 IBS-related hospital admissions during 2011 in England. In total, women aged between 40 and 44 comprised of these 5,000 visits. Along with back pain, symptoms connected to IBS are among the most common reasons for time off work and it is costing employers and the NHS millions each year.

Unfortunately for the 12 million Brits affected by IBS, the symptoms usually strike intermittently, sometimes at the most inconvenient of times and can massively impact the day to day lives for sufferers. One of major these impacts is the workplace. For some employers, it may be difficult to fully appreciate the stress than can be caused by trying to live and work with IBS, or empathise with somebody who has had to rush home because of a flare-up of their symptoms.

This is where employers come in. There are a number of steps you can take to ensure that any employees, who are suffering with IBS, are well catered for and not made to feel isolated from the rest of their colleagues. After all, remember that a happy employee is a productive employee.

One of the most important things you as a business should immediately try to do is sit down and speak to your employee face to face. Try to get them to be open and honest about their condition. Understanding the extent of their predicament will give you the knowledge to consider the best course of action to take during the occasions when they are suffering with symptoms, creating easy access to toilet facilities and other potential issues.

For a supervisor or manager it may be challenging to offer sympathy for somebody suffering with IBS as it is similar to depression in the aspect that it is mainly a health problem on the inside of the body. However, businesses need to recognise that IBS is a widespread serious condition that is causing misery to millions, and more has to be done. At Medical Specialists Pharmacy, patients can have an online consultation and be prescribed treatment for IBS with next day delivery, without the need to take time off work to go to their doctor.

There are a wide range of problems and situations that could present themselves to IBS sufferers in regards to the workplace, and managers need to understand them more so they can accommodate them. For instance, trying to concentrate on a work task can seem an impossible mission for anybody with IBS when they need to get up to go to the toilet and then being required to quietly sit through meetings or presentations can be torturous. If possible, speak to your member of staff about slightly altering their job role so that they are not required to attend them.

Stress is one of the main causes for triggering IBS symptoms, and it should be minimised as much as possible. Encourage all staff, not just those with IBS, to make sure their workload is organised properly in an efficient manner. This way they will have a much better chance of meeting deadlines and not feeling overwhelmed.

For businesses all around the UK, we hope this guidance will provide you with more knowledge on how you can tackle IBS in the workplace. Nobody has to suffer in silence and by reaching out and speaking to your members of staff, you can both go on to enjoy a happier, pleasant working environment.

For more information about the treatments available, or to have an online consultation, visit

Friday, 7 September 2012

Friday Guest Blog - Website Worries

By Tim Gray, Partner & Dispute Resolution Solicitor at Clough & Willis

As we move more towards being a knowledge-based economy, businesses across all sectors increasingly have a great deal of their worth tied up in their Intellectual Property, and that includes the goodwill associated with the business' reputation, trade marks and logos, names and branding. Websites are a key part of this, so what do you do if you think a competitor has copied your website?

Firstly, you need to identify whether your site has been copied in whole or in part and where the copying originated. If you have used a website creation tool, or purchased your site from an organisation selling website templates, you cannot really complain if the generic look and feel of your site appears elsewhere. However, if you have paid for a bespoke site then you need to ascertain if you actually bought the copyright from the website designer.

Once the above questions have been considered you may well be able to stop someone copying your site, based on some or all of the following: firstly, copyright in the coding that creates the site rests with the author and taking your code to create a new website is breach of your copyright; secondly, if you have trade marks on your site then copying and using those also breaches your rights; thirdly, if the look and feel of the site is sufficient to cause customer confusion this may amount to ‘passing off’, as the offender would be coat tailing on your reputation to ‘pass off’ his goods or services as your own.

In any of the above cases, the first step is to send a very robust letter to the copier setting out your rights, their breaches and demanding a remedy. If these aren’t satisfactory then an injunction and a claim for damages may well follow.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Up In The Air And Off The Rails

By Chris Fletcher, Policy & Communications Director at Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce

Anyone that has ever read Bleak House will be familiar with Jarndyce Vs Jarndyce, the seemingly never ending court case that drones its way through the novel with no obvious end in sight, but which ultimately has implications for the main characters.

Anyone that has read a newspaper over the last few weeks or listened to any news, will no doubt have a similar feeling with the resurrection yet again of the Heathrow expansion issue that masks the more urgent question of solving the country's need for a cohesive aviation strategy.

Two Transport Secretaries ago, I was asked to attend a meeting at DfT with other representatives of business organisations to discuss the Government's sustainable aviation review looking at all things aviation related from capacity, to Air Passenger Duty, expansion and environmental issues.

Sounds familiar?

It should do as two years later these same issues are still being discussed with no end in sight, with yet another review committee being set up to look at the problem. Meanwhile, the default setting of Heathrow has kicked in again to dominate the debate about what should be a national issue with national solutions. In the UK we have regional airports with capacity to spare and it is becoming increasingly obvious, some would say inevitable, that a new airport needs building in the South East away from Heathrow. The answer to our problem is not in building a single extra runway, it wasn't when the debate started and as time goes on it becomes even less likely to be the only solution that works.

In the meantime as this story was coming back around we had the hokey cokey that was, and still is, the refranchising exercise for the West Coast mainline. Whether First would be better than Virgin is an argument for another time. As a regular user of the line I, like many other business users, just want a standard of service that continues to build on the work done by Virgin and do not want to see a repeat of the franchise shambles seen in other parts of the country.

So with the future of the UKs main rail route still up in the air and the Government's aviation strategy going off the rails, is it any wonder that people are getting increasingly frustrated with all this?

The PM stated recently he wanted to cut through the dither. Very laudable. Unfortunately it seems that much of this is self-inflicted with simple decisions proving to be the hardest ones to take, whilst we slip further behind our competitors on the global stage.

Maybe Bleak House is an apt description for this, after all my great expectations of a quick resolution to this disappeared some time ago.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Friday Guest Blog - Ports And Harbours

By Dr Brian Sloan, Chief Economist at Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce

Last week I got a call from Ports and Harbours magazine. Not one of my regular reads and perhaps the magazine might have had a higher readership in the Manchester area before Manchester Liners ceased operations in 1985. Nevertheless, despite the decline of shipping in the region and the British Merchant Navy, it is reassuring that Greater Manchester and the wider North West remains very much on the map as far as maritime transport goes.

The topic of the call was the Atlantic Gateway proposals. I have mentioned them before, but needless to say I was extremely enthusiastic about the potential for jobs, up to 250,000 and investment of £14bn over 20 years. I am also excited about the prospects for improving connectivity for existing businesses located here in the North West, but also for others that, as a result of siting a super port in Liverpool, improving rail connectivity and developing the ship canal, will now consider locating in the North West.

What the call did remind me of was a piece of work that I commissioned last Summer as an intern project from Manchester Business School. I wanted to look at economic diversification and its impact on the stability of growth, the labour market and house prices. I’ll save you all the detail as there is no obvious immediate link between economic number crunching and ships, except maybe an excitable naval architect trying to establish Taylor’s wake fraction. What was significant was the finding that the relationship between stability and diversification could be established in the North West region, but not with confidence at the level of Greater Manchester.

What a surprise, economic behaviour ignores boundaries drawn on a map. And why is this important? In a nutshell, the current government scrapped the Regional Development Agencies and replaced them with Local Enterprise Partnerships based on a “functioning economic area”, but these findings suggest that the North West would be better considered the “functioning economic area”. I’m not bringing this up out of some desire to bring back the Regional Development Agencies, but what we are now left with is a fragmented system of decision making on those big projects that stretch across the region and across several Local Enterprise Partnership areas.

Before those dreaming of a return to the days of the Regional Development Agency shout up, those days were no better. Petty regional protectionist arguments, that do nothing for business growth and employment, were as obvious then as they are today. Even the Atlantic Gateway proposals, when the country was staring into the abyss of a recession in 2008, had fierce opposition. What is needed is for national Government to be bold and step up to drive forward these projects. They are urgently needed to support national growth and establish long term prosperity in our region. The Northern Hub rail project and other infrastructure plans must be brought forward to now, not 2015.

Let’s hope David and George read Ports and Harbours, we need something to improve growth, and with it the country’s finances.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Friday Guest Blog - Make A Difference In Your Community And Your Team

Andy Hamill, County Club Director for Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Manchester, talks about a new pilot programme that will enable your business to make a difference both in the heart of your community and at the heart of your company. 

As members of the Chamber of Commerce, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Manchester has recently developed Days of Difference, an employee supported volunteering programme with a twist, which we hope to pilot over the next 12 months.  Days of Difference is a way in which your company can get involved in a volunteering experience that makes a very real difference at a grassroots level, whilst also boosting morale and team work amongst your employees.

As a charity we work with 35 youth clubs across Greater Manchester and, through this connection, we can organise a bespoke and unique corporate social responsibility experience for your staff.

As a team you can choose to undertake a piece of voluntary work, such as painting a room at one of our youth clubs, replanting their sensory garden or running a fun day for some of the young people.

But that is not all (here’s the twist!). We want to offer you much more than a volunteering experience.  We would also like to offer your team the option to take part in sports leadership training, where the skills they learn are equally as useful in the boardroom as they are on the football pitch. Or we could take you back to your childhood and organise an activities day which could include challenges such as raft-building or rock climbing where you can bring your team together.

Your team will leave the Days of Difference programme with a sense of achievement, having contributed to something worthwhile and at the same time, having had great team building experience. 

So what’s in it for us? The Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Manchester are dedicated to helping our clubs build links with businesses in their community.  We don’t just want financial backing (but any help with that would be much appreciated!), we also want your knowledge and advice.  Charities nowadays are finding that they need become more and more businesslike and we believe that the more links we have with the business world, the better we will fare in austere or difficult times. 

If you would like to take part in our pilot programme, please feel free to contact Andy Hamill at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Manchester on 0161 477 7735 or email for more information.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Manchester has formally been in existence since 1907. It provides a year-round programme of recreational and educational activities for around 3,000 young people and 200 volunteers in 35 voluntary youth clubs and projects. Our affiliated clubs are in the most disadvantaged communities of Greater Manchester. 90% of young people are from socio-economic background C to E and 90% of members say that their clubs help to keep them out of trouble and evidence shows that where a Boys & Girls Club exists there is less anti-social behaviour.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Friday Guest Blog - Did the Queen of Shops Get it Wrong?

By Lisa Dickinson - Managing Director, Venus Flowers

In December 2011 Mary Portas published her report into the on-going decline of the British High Street. In her report she clearly identifies the upward trend in eCommerce as one of the main reasons why sales and footfall on the nation’s high streets are in free-fall. Mary makes 28 recommendations all of which are valid but I am left wondering why she doesn’t encourage the small trader to believe that they have as much right to profit from the opportunities of eCommerce, Social Media and Search Engine Marketing as the big boy multiples with their enormous digital marketing budgets?

Who am I to have an opinion?

I am essentially Mary’s cause – Queen of my own shop and the proud owner of Venus Flowers.

A Manchester City Centre florist – a somewhat unusual sight in Manchester City Centre these days – a small independent retailer who engages in a daily battle to survive if not thrive in the brave new world of post credit crunch depression.

Like most small businesses I recognised years ago that I needed an on-line presence and have since lost count of the amount of time and money I have spent engaging with ‘experts’ in the field of web-design.

I am now onto the third developer and the third version of my site the previous two being utter disasters the details of which I don’t have the time or energy to go into.

I have literally lost thousands of pounds and at times my faith in humanity.

Sadly, I know from talking to other small business owners that I am not alone.

Taking Back Search Marketing and Social Media Control

At the end of 2011 I discovered by accident a huge mistake in the development of my current website (quickly acknowledged and rectified by my current developers) which was the final straw – I had an epiphany…

I realised that without knowledge I would never have control, I understood something of every other area of my business why not this one? So after some research (web based of course), here I am attending Salford Business School’s Search and Social Media Marketing Course, a slightly nervous florist/business owner/complete novice.

My eCommerce Journey So Far


Here I am four weeks in writing my first blog-post, but more than that, understanding why blogging is important and how I can respond to some of my potential customers long-tail searches and build links to my website by writing interesting and authoritative blogs on subjects I understand and enjoy (GET ME!). For example this beautiful picture of a brides bouquet we made a couple of weeks ago which is lingering on my iPhone:

now gets a title of “Spring Brides Bouquet” (in response to a small but significant number of long tail searches I found when I was developing my keyword plan), and becomes a part of venus flowers blog I am writing on the subject, this will include a video of us making a Spring Brides Bouquet as well as links back to my wedding page where brides to be can click on a link to request a no obligation consultation – impressive hey? In the meantime I have been able to share this image with our Twitter Followers.

eCommerce – importance of Keyword Research

Using Goolge Adwords to research how people are searching for your products and services has to be the simplest but the most revealing part of the course for me. Why is it when I have paid thousands to have an eCommerce site developed I have been asked to write my own content “so it will be more authentic” without so much as a reference to the importance of keyword research?

I am ranking third for “florist Manchester”:

This ranking is more by luck than judgement, but I rank nowhere for “flower delivery Manchester” which has far higher search numbers – time to write some content!

I have also learned that my industry language isn’t necessarily the language of the searcher, when writing I would always use the term Sympathy Flowers believing this to be more grammatically acceptable, however my Google Adword research revealed only 480 monthly searches for this term and over 12,000 for “Funeral Flowers” – time to get back to plain English and write even more content!

Suffice it to say that encouraged by my tutor and our guest speakers industry experts like the mind-blowingly brilliant Mark Johnson from Latitude and Dan Taylor from Seowned both of whom have restored some of my faith in the integrity of the industry, I now have a fully researched keyword plan. This along with a carefully considered Pay-Per-Click (PPC) campaign for the areas I don’t yet rank organically for means that hopefully I should get a return on my course investment in the near future.

eCommerce and importance of Links

Having spent ages agonising over why a competitor who (in my humble opinion) has a poor website and isn’t actually anywhere near as good as we are consistently out-ranks us for some key terms. Using tools and techniques I have learned over the last four weeks like using google link query and SEOToolbar, I have been able to compare our sites and it’s clear that the only reason for this is the number of links into their site. Link-building is somewhat more time consuming and complex than keyword research and content writing, it also involves good old fashioned relationship building and networking. I however understand how vital this is to Google and also how to go after links with authority – quality rather than quantity.

Watch this space competitors I’m on your case!

Like Raef and Stuart from Channel 4’s Celebrity Wedding Planner you can follow us on twitter or Facebook where I will be sharing our latest flower pictures, stories and offers from Venus Flowers:

So…eCommerce and the High Street – Crisis or Opportunity?

Having read my blog tell me what you think, do you think that eCommerce can help small business owners to stay on the High Street or are you with Mary Portas and believe that eCommerce will mean the end of British High Street?