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

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.