Page last updated at 23:16 GMT, Thursday, 23 July 2009 00:16 UK

Small firms want help to drive GDP

By Will Smale
Business reporter, BBC News, Herefordshire

Good ideas for a business can come from anywhere. In Tony Lees' case it was bad toothache while on a skiing holiday in the Alps.

Dentanurse founder Tony Lees
Tony Lees came up with his big business idea on holiday

"A filling fell out, and I was in rather a lot of pain," says the 71-year-old.

"I was in the position of having the hassle and expense of finding a dentist in Switzerland. A dentist who was going to surgically remove my wallet.

"I thought, 'wouldn't it be a good idea to be able to buy a DIY repair kit so you could put a temporary filling in yourself?'"

While most people would initially balk at the idea of having a go at sorting out their own teeth, Mr Lees had a significant advantage - he had been a dental surgeon for 45 years.

However, despite - or rather because of - his dental knowledge, he was convinced he could design a simple teeth repair kit that anyone could use.

And so, back in 1988, he and his wife Jenny formed a new company called Dentanurse, and produced the prototype of a teeth first aid pack, complete with the two pastes you need to mix to make a filling or fix broken crowns and bridges.

There is also a dental mirror, mixing tray, spatula, and a short instruction manual.

The sceptics said it would never take off, but 21 years later the £10.99 first aid pack for teeth is stocked by Asda, Boots, Lloyds Pharmacy, Sainsbury's and Superdrug.

Dentanurse now ships 100,000 units of the UK-made product per year, from its base in the picturesque wilds of rural Herefordshire, alongside supplying a wide range of other products to the dental industry.

'Feel invisible'

Dentanurse may still only employ five full-time members of staff, but together with the other four million SMEs - small to medium-sized firms employing 249 or fewer workers - across the UK, this certainly adds up.

Small firms are at the heart of bringing the UK out of the recession and need as much support as they can get to play their part
John Wright, national chairman, FSB

According to the most recent government figures, the country's SMEs employ 13.5 million people, or 59% of the UK's total private sector workforce.

These companies account for 51% of UK GDP, according to the Federation of Small Businesses.

Mr and Mrs Lees say they are sceptical of the government's efforts to help them and other small firms.

"SMEs make up the majority of the economy, but we feel invisible," says Mrs Lees.

"I suppose we simply lack the clout of the bigger firms, but we don't seem to get much assistance.

"We are told there are grants available, but when you apply for them, there are just so many hoops you have to jump through, you'd swear they really didn't want to give you the money."

The couple's request to the government is very simple. "Cut business rates for small firms, and reduce rate tape," says Mr Lees.

"We had tax inspectors [from HM Revenue & Customs] around recently, and the whole thing took three days to sort out, which was crazy," adds Mrs Lees.

"That was three days lost from the business."

'Economic heart'

John Wright, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), agrees that the government needs to do more to help small companies.

Jenny Lees
Jenny Lees says red tape can be a real pain

"Small firms really are at the heart of the economy," he says.

"Without them, the economy would falter, and so small firms are at the heart of bringing the UK out of the recession, and need as much support as they can get to play their part."

Mr Wright said he wanted the government to continue efforts to get the banks to start lending again, and to put pressure on bigger companies to ensure they pay their small suppliers on time.

He added that the FSB would like to see the government fund a short-time working scheme so that firms can continue to employ staff for a number of hours each week in cases where otherwise they would have to make them redundant.

'All we can'

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovations and Skills, said the government "recognises the valuable contribution that SMEs make to the UK economy".

Dentanurse first aid kid for teeth
Dentanurse says the first aid kit is easy enough for anyone to use

"We are doing all we can to support viable small businesses through the current recession and create an environment where they can take advantage of the opportunities arising from the upturn," he says.

He added that the government was working on a range of initiatives, including the Enterprise Finance Guarantee Scheme.

This programme aims to support up to £1.3bn of new lending by banks to small firms, and is designed to let them borrow between £1,000 and £1m over 10 years.

Since it was launched last November, the government says 5,300 small businesses had made an application, with offered loans now totalling more than £381m.

Back at Dentanurse in Herefordshire, which Mr and Mrs Lees run alongside their other business, a stud farm for pure-breed Arabian horses, the couple say they remain unconvinced.

"What small firms need is our own government department," says Mrs Lees. "We need that to get our voices heard."

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