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Wednesday, 31 January, 2001, 20:25 GMT
Forging ahead with networking
MKW Engineering, a company with 160 staff and a turnover of 6m.
Smaller companies are finding new ways to link up with other like-minded businesses.
By Rob Pittam of BBC Two's Working Lunch

Networking is no longer the preserve of politicians, media types and ambitious executives.

It is becoming an increasingly important, and effective, tool for small businesses around the UK.

Many of them cannot afford to join big business organisations, or feel that they need help on a more personal level.

That is where business clubs - with anything between 20 and 100 members - come in. And judging by the meeting I attended in north-east England, they get results.

Gateshead Enterprise Club is one of three in the area. Members pay 35 a year and are invited to a variety of seminars, trips and social events.

A meeting of small businesses, creating contacts and useful links.
Firms set out their stalls to see if other members are interested in their services.

I went to a marketplace event, where firms set out their stalls to see if other members are interested in their services or know of business colleagues who might be. Suppliers were offering everything from financial advice to photography.

The meeting was held at MKW Engineering, a company with 160 staff and a turnover of 6m. It is bigger than many club members, but sales director Rahmon Nassor believes the events complement its other activities.

"We've found it very successful for meeting new customers locally and new suppliers," he said.

"A contact we made at a meeting two years ago has now turned into big contracts in the offshore business."

"You're swapping business cards and ideas, talking to people with the same sort of problems as you have."

Building contacts

Maureen McKeown runs a fledgling geographical mapping company, MMCK. "I'm trying to target small-to-medium businesses and somebody's already kindly brought them together for me so I can come along to one of these meetings and meet 20-30 businesses at the same time," she says.

"It's excellent because you make the contacts, meet the people, and share the experiences. When you are starting off you don't know everything about business but somebody here does."

The intimacy of the gatherings appeals to photographer Liz King. She also belongs to the Chamber of Commerce, but feels meetings there can be too large.

She might not see certain members at more than one event a year, so cannot build up relationships.

Neil Todd is an accountant, so a natural choice as treasurer of the Gateshead club. He thinks it is particularly useful for new set-ups.

Forging deals

"People who are starting out tend to be attracted because having contacts is very important," he explained. "It can be very lonely for them and this gets them into a circle of contacts almost from day one."

The clubs can get seedcorn funding and other support from some of the 81 Business Link organisations around the UK - from April, these will be reborn under the Small Business Service umbrella.

They clearly have a future. At the end of our meeting in Gateshead, a show of hands revealed that some members had struck deals while others had made good contacts for the future. What more can you ask?

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