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FSB members Northern Ireland: Case Studies 2018

Gillian McLeanWe want to give our members here in Northern Ireland a platform for telling us all about their experiences as an SME in NI and their reasons for being a member of the FSB. No better week to start the ball rolling that during our #ThinkSelfEmployed campaign launch week. This month we speak to Gillian McLean who runs Thrive Marketing & Communications based in Magherafelt…she tells us about her journey



Background Story…

I have over 20 years national and international experience within the public and private (FMCG and industrial) sectors, across multiple industries – leisure marine, defence, horticulture, hospitality & tourism and arts & culture. I have won multiple marketing awards including Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) Ireland ‘Marketing Director of the Year’ and have helped companies across Northern Ireland develop and implement award-winning strategies.  In my leadership roles within Whale, Thales, Westland Horticulture and National Museums Northern Ireland, I built teams, structures, and the environment to liberate creative problem-solving whilst developing new innovative business models.

I established Thrive Marketing & Communications, a strategic marketing and business development consultancy in 2017, after identifying an opportunity to support and inspire SMEs and add scale to their business.  I have one mission – to act as a catalyst for business growth.  I unlock potential, transforming my clients’ businesses.  My services target the key areas that drive business growth – operations, strategy, research and communications.  My service delivery is bespoke to each client’s challenges, opportunities and objectives.  Whether they want to grow their business, plan for future development, enter new markets, require employee coaching or mentoring, or wish to outsource their marketing and communications, I design a support package to suit their business.

Why did you join FSB?

As a new business owner, I was impressed by the range of benefits and services that were available to me.  Through my membership, I now have the same support network of a large business.  Having recently worked in a large organisation with access to legal, financial and HR specialists when required; the FSB offers fantastic protection for small businesses across a wide range of vital services including tax, legal and HR advice, as well as free business banking. In addition, the diverse range of local events provide a fantastic platform for networking and for raising the profile of my business.

Have you used any FSB services so far and how has this experience been/helped your business?

Yes, shortly after joining, I took advantage of the Legal Hub as I needed a legally binding but straightforward business-to-business contract that wouldn’t deter my clients!  After contacting the Customer Services team to outline my requirements, I was called by a specialist solicitor who subsequently emailed me a contract to brand and tailor to my requirements. Having access to compliant documentation can be a time-consuming task but having the correct legal documents in place when running my business has enabled me to trade with confidence.

I’ve also benefited from the Business Profiling service enabling me to evaluate my business’ digital performance.  Through this service I gleaned valuable information on my business’ digital strengths - and more importantly areas for improvement; which has enabled me to take control of my online reputation and reach my target customers more effectively.

What is the single greatest challenge for any SME at the minute?

I ran a recent Twitter poll in which 56% of respondents indicated ‘uncertainty about the future’ was the biggest challenge facing their business.  With Brexit negotiations ongoing and the political impasse at Stormont continuing, there are a range of additional challenges facing local businesses such as potential inflationary pressures, subdued economic growth, volatile currency markets, alongside final preparations for GDPR compliance which has placed further strain on company budgets as SMEs endeavour to comply with necessary changes in employment law and its wider impact on marketing activities.

As a number of my clients trade and source raw materials outside NI, the final settlement of the Brexit arrangements and its impact on future trading relationships between the UK and our European neighbours, including the Republic of Ireland, presents challenges.  That said, Thrive Marketing & Communications remains focused on supporting, inspiring and transforming our clients’ businesses helping them to achieve their long-term goals despite the many obstacles and uncertainties that are put in their way.

What are the opportunities and positives for SMEs at the minute?

In April, NISRA (Northern Ireland Statistics Research Agency) reported NI economic activity was estimated to have increased by 0.4% in real terms from Quarter 3 to Quarter 4 2017, and over the last two years annual output has increased by 1.1%.  Furthermore, external sales to markets outside of NI rose by £1.0 billion (4.2%) to £24.1 billion in 2016 with the EU the destination for more than half of NI’s good exports.

While the absence of the NI Executive and the lack of clarity regarding the arrangements for Brexit is clearly a concern for many SMEs, the scope of opportunity for sales outside Northern Ireland must be embraced. Recent economic forecasts show that despite the current uncertainty SMEs are continuing to plan for future growth and success. This presents several opportunities for my business as I’m focused on supporting my clients to thrive and grow to their fullest potential.  My passion and drive is to know my clients’ business and become an inseparable extension of their team. I believe in building long-term relationships with my clients, to truly understand their business and then working collaboratively to deliver results. 

FSB key campaign issues at the minute include: Brexit, Small Business Rates Relief, GDPR, Prompt Payment, local Bank Branch Closures, Broadband.  Which is most important to you and your business at present and why?

While Brexit and GDPR are presenting a number of concerns for my clients, the issue most affecting my business is broadband connectivity.  My business is based in a rural location and finding a reliable broadband connection is key for my company to function effectively. Issues with upload and download speeds, as well as reliability and quality of service continue to present challenges. 

While I have what is supposed to be superfast broadband, the problem with the existing broadband infrastructure means my service provider still uses copper wire with fibre only being used from the exchange to the cabinet.  As a result, I experience a degradation of signals due to my company’s distance from the telephone exchange.

Your words of advice to anyone starting a small business

One of the most important ingredients in a successful business is passion. Passion will consistently drive you to improve, so your business grows.  That said, don’t let passion take over all your decisions. Passion will move you forward, but knowledge will point you in the right direction.

Make sure you understand and know what your customer is and who they are, then make sure you look after them.  Know your strengths and weaknesses and reach out to professionals that can help you with specific areas such as financial advice, HR and marketing.  Surround yourself with advisors and mentors who will nurture you to become a better leader and business person.  In addition, make sure you have a strong support network to help you grow your business – it is vital for success.

Finally, review your overall plan often and change it when based on the numbers.  There will be highs and lows when starting a business - resilience is key!

How can someone contact your business?

@thrivebusiness_ (Twitter)

@thrivebusinessNI (Facebook)