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  1. By Melanie Hird, director of Seneca Investments (part of Seneca Partners Limited)

    In today’s tough economic climate you would think that business owners and managers would keep a close eye on the financial health of their company.

    In fact, you would expect them to scrutinise their numbers even more closely than they would do in the good times when business is buoyant.

    My own experience in the turnaround and restructuring market tells me that the reverse is too often the case due to the inability of many MDs to read the bigger picture of what the figures are telling them.

    The latest annual Credit Check report by ABN AMRO Commercial Finance, based on research data from 200 accountants reinforces that SMEs struggle to understand what the figures mean - and therefore miss early warning signs that the long term health and sustainability of their businesses is threatened.

    More than half (51%) of accountants surveyed believe SMEs do not feel in control of their financial affairs and almost two thirds (64%) report that many of their clients do not set aside enough time to exclusively focus on financial management. Just 15% of clients discuss financial affairs with their accountants on a weekly basis whilst 41% relegate those conversations to a once or twice yearly event.

    I suspect a majority of the discussions may only be prompted by a crisis. If, for example, the firm suddenly loses its largest client to a competitor, the impact may not hit the bottom line immediately. In a misguided effort to shore up the gap, the SME may take on new business purely to feed turnover, not profit. If the situation persists over several months, it could spell financial disaster.

    A forward thinking SME will have a strategy in place that would safeguard the company against over reliance on a single large client and a financial adviser that will ask all the ‘What if?’ questions in advance.

    If professional help and advice is only sought infrequently, the business could be in the red months before the issues are properly identified and addressed.

    Sound financial management rests on having experienced, proactive people in place and for the business owner to be asking the right questions - and checking a few critical numbers - on a weekly basis. Some advisors encourage bosses to check their incomings and outgoings on a daily basis – a precaution which is more necessary in sectors such as retail.

    Businesses that are large enough to require an audit will have a financial advisor or an FD to spot the danger signs. Smaller companies will not require - nor can they afford - this level of expertise and resource. In my experience, many smaller businesses have accountants who may not be close enough to the company to flag up when:

    · Cash flow is tight

    · Creditor days are stretched

    · Suppliers remove credit from the business

    · Sales are diminishing

    · Margins are being eroded

    · Commissions are taken on for cash not profit

    · Staff are leaving

    · Competitors are taking market share

    The financial health of a business is fundamental to its survival and success. SMEs that remain financially ignorant for prolonged periods will inevitably pay the painful price.

    For more information contact Melanie Hird on 07917 888880 or email melanie.hird@senecainvestments.co.uk
  2. By Barry Warne, partner and head of employment law at hlw Keeble Hawson

    Significant alterations to parental leave rights came into effect on 5th April this year which will render existing maternity leave policies out of date.

    The changes will apply to parents of babies due on or after this date and to adoptive parents who are matched with a child from 5th April onwards.

    However a recent survey by Working Families - which promotes a work life balance in the UK - found that 40 per cent of companies are not ready for the system of Shared Parental Leave (SPL).

    The measures will allow an employee whose baby is due on or after 5th April to end her maternity leave at any time after the compulsory two week minimum and to share the remaining period, up to a maximum of 50 weeks, with her husband or life partner.

    Shared Parental Leave allows employees to take up to three separate blocks of leave each, totalling 52 weeks between them, paid at the rate of £138.18 per week or 90 per cent of average weekly earnings - whichever is lower, for a combined total of 39 weeks as at present. Parents will be able to decide for themselves what time they would like to take off, and how the 52 weeks is shared between them. In an extreme case the mother could take two, and the father 50 weeks of leave.

    The new laws will impact on businesses - particularly SMEs - and will force companies to plan ahead for what might be up to seven periods of leave between the two parents instead of just one for the mother as at present. This is in addition to paternity leave, unpaid parental leave of up to 13 weeks and taken out ‘of course’ annual leave.

    All employers will have to get ready soon and put policies and administrative systems in place in the countdown to 5th April and enquiries from pregnant employees and fathers to be could start at any time.

    Employers of predominantly male workforces are likely to be the most affected as the door will now be open to several lengthy absences for “dads”.

    It is also important that employees understand that they have obligations as well as rights under the new legislation and can lose their entitlement or have it affected if they fail to comply with requirements placed on them.

    However, if everybody involved is aware of their rights and responsibilities and communicates effectively with one another, it will be entirely possible to manage these changes with minimum cost and interruption to businesses. For example, a business may have its busiest time in the run up to Christmas and may be keen to encourage its employees to be back from maternity leave by then – so having the father take shared parental leave from then onwards might suit everybody.

    For more information contact Barry Warne on 00 44 114 252 1437 or email barrywarne@hlwkeeblehawson.co.uk
  3. How do you know if PR is working for your business - and worth your investment?

    PR should always underpin your business plan to ensure it is focused and reaching the right audiences. If you don’t have a business strategy your PR will be a waste of resource and investment.

    1. Become an authority in your field

    Quest’s clients seek us out to position them as experts in their field. They understand the benefits include invitations to speak at major industry events and participating in round table debates with other high profile influencers – influencing and informing decision makers at the highest level. Your expertise will open doors to key audiences - then it is up to you to push those doors open wider.

    2. Focus on outcomes - not outputs

    Effective evaluation is about outcomes - what happens as a result of the PR - rather than outputs, which are the PR activities themselves. Generating acres of column inches in random publications is simply an output. And what is the point of a headline article in the Sun newspaper if your critical audience is more likely to be reading the Huffington Post online?

    3. Set measurable goals

    At Quest we work with our clients to set clear measurable goals. These might be linked to targeted media coverage, to increased and sustained visitors to websites and blogs or to engaging with key audiences and influencers via Twitter and Linkedin, winning awards, being invited to speak at industry relevant events – all of which can generate warm sales leads.

    4. Maximise your PR to generate sales leads

    PR can, and does, open your business up to new networks and target customers. However, it is up to you to follow up and maximise the warm leads with activities such as having coffee with a potential customer who has shared your latest blog or those who have opened your latest newsletter.

    B2B PR is less about ‘cause and effect’ and more about a drip, drip integrated approach with your marketing, PR and social media that builds you and your business as a leader in your field and opens doors.

    5. Harness PR to recruit top talent

    PR can help to recruit and retain the brightest talent. Everyone wants to work for a great company or organisation and PR showcases not only your products and services, but also your values and ethos. Prospective employees will Google you and review your website, blog and social media platforms to find out more about your business. Thoughtful and regular PR, including scooping industry awards, new contract wins and employee success stories, will ensure that what they find is positive and demonstrates that you are an outstanding employer.

    Quest’s expertise lies in delivering integrated campaigns which position our clients as industry experts and thought leaders across traditional and digital platforms. Guaranteeing results, our potent formula secures clients new leads - and we media train them to look and sound great on the radio, TV and in print.

    For a cuppa and a no obligation chat to see how Quest can elevate you as an expert, contact Sharon Cain on +44 (0)1423 564 192.

    For more information on Quest PR visit @questpr @sharoncain on Twitterwww.quest-pr.com or www.questprblog.co.uk
  4. Andrew Stoddart, MD, VIDA Architecture

    Employee satisfaction is often mooted as one of the most important aspects of running a business.

    Creating a productive and pleasant working environment is in the interest of every employer seeking to promote staff creativity, a strong work ethic - and innovation.

    It is vital your workplace reflects how employees are an integral part of the company - letting staff know they are valued and giving a lasting first impression for clients.

    With the Office for National Statistics revealing British productivity per hour is 21 per cent below average for a G7 nation – and CIPD figures highlighting job satisfaction levels are at just 42 per cent – here are some tips on how your office design can boost your bottom line.

    Examine your office layout

    Many bosses organise staff around job function or by department when it is often more productive for employees to be grouped with colleagues that share the same goals or clients.

    If your seating arrangement isn’t working, ask employees how the current design can be improved. Providing an open space with the option of private meeting space can work well.

    Depending on the nature of your business, you may also want to consider including interactive elements such as whiteboards, tablets, chalkboards, wall planners and staff incentive charts.

    Use the right colours

    Human Spaces - which explores the relationship between the built environment and our health and wellbeing - studied 3,600 office workers in eight European countries and concluded that office environment design is key to boosting productivity.

    A dark office is unlikely to inspire even the most creative minds and the use of natural wood, stone, white shades and purple are popular choices.

    Greens, blues and purples are often associated with being relaxed and inviting, while warmer colours, yellows, oranges and reds are linked with warmth and vision. These colour palettes stimulate creativity without being distracting.


    Maximise natural light

    The Human Spaces Report identified natural light as employees’ top priority within the workplace. It contributes to productivity and promotes good health and studies reveal that no access to natural light increases the risk of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

    If natural light is limited, look at adding mirrors which help bounce light across a room whilst also creating the illusion of a larger office.

    Create green spaces

    Creating green spaces within and outside office environments will also enhance effectiveness and wellbeing.

    Plants in the workplace are renowned to bring psychological, aesthetic and air quality benefits. Allocating an outdoor area for staff or ensuring access to fresh air is available during working hours is also important.

    Lighting and comfort

    A study conducted by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment found that applying small changes such as good lighting, or background noise reduction, can limit absence by 15 per cent and increase motivation by 20 per cent.

    Allow staff to feel comfortable in their own space by making it their own and keeping it tidy. Providing practical items such as desk organisers and storage space helps to reduce clutter.

    The Health and Safety Executive also recommends office temperatures should be at least 16C, with a temperature between 21-22C widely accepted as being comfortable.

    In the words of Doug Conant, CEO of Campbell’s Soup: “To win in the marketplace you must first win in the workplace”. Taking the above small steps could make enormous strides in your efficiency, productivity and profitability.
  5. In today’s competitive business environment, being recognised as the ‘go to’ expert in your industry has been proven to open doors and drive sales for MDs across the public and private sector.

    At multi award winning Quest PR – where we media train and position our clients as industry experts – our team is called by media organisations who regularly seek out our clients for comment on radio and TV.

    Quest’s MD, Sharon Cain, a former radio and TV reporter with organisations including BBC and Sky TV who used to commission authoritative interviewees for live and pre-recorded interviews, can’t overemphasise the importance of getting it right when you are first invited on air.

    If you come across as credible, personable and knowledgeable, you will be invited back – elevating your profile as an industry expert to new heights.

    TV is a visual medium and, as such, appearance is everything, 55% of overall impression is based on the way you look, 38% down to your delivery – and only 7% is based on what you say.

    This means the more energetic and authoritative you are – the better you will come across.

    TV gives the viewer a lasting impression – no matter what you say – if your eyes are all over the place, people will remember you as a shifty looking character!

    When preparing for TV interviews do:

    [​IMG] Talk to the interviewer not the camera

    [​IMG] Check hair, tie, jacket before the interview

    [​IMG] If pre-recorded, stop the interview and start again if not happy with your response

    [​IMG] Relax and look assured

    Don’t:

    [​IMG] Smile – it can be misunderstood

    [​IMG] Fidget

    [​IMG] Assume too much knowledge on part of the interviewer

    [​IMG] Volunteer information that’s not relevant

    [​IMG] Get rattled – stay calm, cool and collected

    Be aware that a local TV audience can soon become national and national can become viral content.

    In comparison to radio, TV is often brief, superficial and impressions count – with pictures as important as words. Radio tends to be more measured and balanced, less superficial and use of language becomes more important.

    To find out how Quest can help you master the media, call our MD Sharon Cain on 01423 564192 or email Sharon@quest-pr.com , check out our company page on LinkedIn or reach us via Twitter @QuestPR
  6. Deborah Niven, hlw Keeble Hawson

    Creative businesses could be sitting on tens of thousands of pounds in Intellectual Property (IP) assets.

    Deborah Niven, an IP specialist at hlw Keeble Hawson, one of Yorkshire’s largest law firms, is urging SMEs in creative and digital sectors to take advantage of government funding to audit their intellectual property.

    Through the government’s Business Growth Service, the IP Audit Plus programme provides funding of up to £3,000 - including VAT - for an IP professional to assess the value of a business’s IP collateral.

    The audits, which are suitable for all sectors, enable established companies to take a step back and assess where the value lies in their business.

    Explains Deborah: “Often at the start of a business, only minimal consideration is given to intellectual property and contracts in order to begin trading, but over time the firm builds up a brand, develops products or services and expands along the way.”

    “Audits of this nature that we’ve conducted enable directors and owner/managers to gain a clear picture of any IP assets, ensuring these can be managed effectively and used as part of the business growth strategy. This awareness is particularly important where the audit has demonstrated that IP protection is key to the development and commercialisation of a particular product or service, and can also be a critical factor in valuing a business for a future sale, management buy-out or for an injection of funds from private equity investors.”

    A report from the Intellectual Property Office on the IP Audit Plus found that the audits had highlighted new business opportunities in 31% of participating businesses, with 43% - more than four in ten companies - identifying new opportunities to exploit their IP through initiatives such as licensing and franchising - and 28% reaping financial benefits as a direct result of their audit.

    In a further business boost, the report demonstrated that IP reviews had opened up new financial support streamssuch as equity funding (23%) and grant funding (30%).

    Adds Deborah: “Businesses may not consider IP to be high on their agenda. The most valuable IP asset might be a new product which is being developed, but the company doesn’t see it as either inventive or protectable when actually it is.

    “An improvement to an existing product or service, or a new way of doing something, can often be protected - leading to licensing opportunities, additional income streams, or even a monopoly in the market place if they gain patent protection.”

    An effective IP audit report and recommendations may cover:

    · Patents – identifying applications, granted patents and potential patentable technology

    · Trade Marks – identifying registered and unregistered trade marks, searching existing marks if registration is recommended

    · Designs – identifying registered and unregistered trade marks and considering potential protection

    · Copyright – establishing who owns copyright on databases, software, websites, marketing/promotional material, photography, film etc. This includes considering ownership of copyright where such work has been commissioned by a client – or any work carried out by a freelance for a creative agency - explaining the process for ownership and database right. This is an area frequently misunderstood by both designers and their clients.

    · IP management – including confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements, trade secrets, know-how, employee agreements and dissemination of IP policy, contracts, licensing including royalty payments, evaluating existing IP agreements

    · Loopholes in IP, including copyright and trade marks, that enable copycats to undermine a business

    · Identifying opportunities for royalty streams, based on a percentage of the net selling price of any products sold.

    The final report will identify any weaknesses in a business’ IP and advise on what protection can be sought. It will also make recommendations for further action and possibly steer the business in a direction which wouldn’t have previously been considered.

    To qualify for funding for IP Audit Plus businesses must be registered on the Growth Accelerator Programme, part of the government’s Business Growth Service.

    For more information see http://www.ga.businessgrowthservice.greatbusiness.gov.uk

    or contact Deborah Niven on 0114 252 1401.
  7. As a team of former national and regional journalists and PR professionals, our relationships with the media are critical – as is providing them with the right copy and collateral for their respective readers, listeners and viewers.

    Whilst making that initial step to call or contact a journalist can be a daunting prospect, doing your research and knowing your media will pay dividends in boosting your profile.

    We picked up an interesting article on the Guardian Media Network which suggests that ‘selling in’ to a journalist is becoming obsolete. When it comes to selling or pitching your story over the phone, journalists are more stretched these days, and many do prefer a well-crafted email pitch.

    However, in our experience there are still times when it is more effective to pick up the phone to a journalist. To take out that fear, here are some tips to get you started:

    1. Preparation is key: Writing down key points you need to pitch, and pre-empting any questions you think the journalist could ask is advised

    2. Conduct background research: Before calling a journalist, spend five minutes researching what they have previously written, or look them up on social media. This will help develop a relationship if they know you’ve taken the time to look them up

    3. Timing is everything: Always be aware of the media’s deadlines. For those working on a paper for example – call earlier in the day. With radio reporters working on radio news bulletins avoid calling near the hour when they are reading the news

    4. Take your time: Rushing straight into your story is not going to get you anywhere. Instead ask the journalist, ‘how are you?’ and ‘is this a good time to call?’

    5. Find a newsworthy angle: Like any other type of pitch, if you hook your story in with something topical, a journalist is more likely to see some depth to it

    6. Have an email ready: If a journalist is busy, they may say ‘send something over’, so having your email ready to send as soon as you come off the phone gives you more chance of it being read

    7. Listen to the journalist: Let the journalist’s response guide you, listen to what they have to say about your story as it may prove helpful in the future

    8. Be prepared for knockbacks: If a reporter or producer is short with you, or simply does not have the time, don’t be put off. They work to tight deadlines and are called by hundreds of PR’s daily – as as well as being bombarded by thousands of emails.

    What are your tips on pitching to journalists? Or if you are a journalist what makes a good phone pitch for you?

    To find out how Quest can help you master the media, call our MD Sharon Cain on 01423 564192 or email Sharon@quest-pr.com , check out our company page on LinkedIn or reach us via Twitter @QuestPR