Page last updated at 15:35 GMT, Sunday, 5 July 2009 16:35 UK

Planning to beat the recession

Ganesh Selvarajah, an advisor at Business Link, the government-funded business support service, is the latest addition to the BBC News Website's small business panel of experts.

The panel members can answer your questions on how to set up and grow a small firm, and any challenges you may meet along the way.

Here he explores how small firms can best guide themselves through the continuing recession.

While small businesses have had a tough time of late, the good news is that adversity and opportunity are closely linked.

The recession can be an opportunity for some firms

And by taking a long hard look at your business, and focusing on what you do best, it may be that you could use adversity to fuel your growth.

My day-to-day experience of helping businesses over the last 11 years has given me real insights into the principles for running a business successfully.

This enables me to help them find the right solutions for their own circumstances.

At Business Link, we don't have a one-size-fits-all approach, but instead cater for the individual, aiming to broker specific solutions.

We've received double the number of calls in the last quarter on a range of issues, but most of them come down to two things - cash flow and staff.

It is essential to forecast cash flow for periods appropriate to the business, preparing forecasts perhaps quarterly in advance, and dividing them into weeks, months or even days when the situation is difficult.

If your business is fundamentally robust, but cash flow is causing a problem, various financial tools, such as factoring and invoice discounting may help.

However, this does rely on having a solid customer base.

Health check

If you work with a supplier who always has problems, you may want to consider lessening your vulnerability by broadening your portfolio of suppliers, or negotiating variable rates.

Doctor with stethoscope
Giving your firm a health check is especially important during a recession

You might also consider having a free Business Link health check to review your current activities.

Perhaps you are confident that your business can make it through the downturn, but there may still be challenges ahead.

As a result it is good to be prepared - get a plan in place and give yourself enough time to have the conversations you need to turn your business around.

At Business Link, we can help you to put together a detailed business plan that you can present properly to the banks.

If you do require an extension to your overdraft or a short-term loan, the banks will be more readily able to assess the risk if you can explain to them how it is going to be repaid.

We want businesses to get to the point where they fully appreciate what they need to do, and are able to get that documentation in place.

Redundancy should always be a last resort, and you can explore more creative ways to reduce fixed overheads

It is also a good idea to create a contingency plan to meet any short-term cash shortages, and to incorporate warning signals into your cash flow forecast. For example, if predicted cash levels come close to the limit of your overdraft, this should alert you to the need to take remedial action.

If you decide that your business is not sustainable, consider how to create a clean exit strategy, rather than getting into such a mess that you let it collapse around you.

Staffing issues

Without sales, a business cannot afford to keep staff, yet without staff it lacks capacity to grow. This is a common cycle that stops businesses from thriving.

When times are tough, employers automatically look to cut overheads, but when you make employees redundant it can be difficult to replace them.

This leaves you in a weaker position for recovery, since expertise in an organisation is usually embedded in its people.

Now could be a good time to acquire a failing business that needs better management

Redundancy should always be a last resort, and you can explore more creative ways to reduce fixed overheads.

For example, I am fairly convinced that unless staff members require a certain absolute salary, they will be far more willing to consider doing four days a week than not have a job at all.

It is worth looking at skills to see whether you can use an employee differently, and it is also important to take human resources and legal advice about how to alter terms and conditions of employment to allow you to make use of staff in different ways.

If you reduce an employee's hours, could you work with a local college to help them improve their skills during time away from the business? Once you get on an upward curve, this could help recovery.

Through the Enterprise and Skills Board, Business Link is working with colleges and businesses to help identify and align such opportunities.

Growth opportunities

Some businesses such as niche providers of very specific products and services are doing well in this climate, and a few have the necessary financial strength and offering to really grow, so long as they do not overstretch.

Now could be a good time to acquire a failing business that needs better management.

Or, since the pound is relatively weak, you may choose to look at export and overseas development, which is a way of lessening your exposure to local economic conditions.

There are a lot of services out there offering support to help you through the downturn.

The important thing is to know where to go. One of the advantages of using Business Link is that it is plugged into all the help that is currently available.

Through its brokerage system, it can help you to find people within its network of organisations and providers who can offer appropriate assistance, saving time and money.

While our website provides comprehensive information on a huge range of business matters, from employment law to export advice, you can also contact your local Business Link office on 0845 600 9 006.

Advisers are available to help you review the performance of your business, identify any weak spots and make you aware of specialist business support services that can meet your particular needs.

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