Shaun Lowthorpe, Business editor
Saturday, May 19, 2012
Many people may dream of setting up their own business, and at NWES staff have spent 30 years helping to turn that aspiration into a reality.
It is an impressive feat – NWES (or Norfolk and Waveney Enterprise Services as it was known then) started out life on the former PYE factory in Lowestoft after an idea was born to try to help some of those left out of work following the announcement of its closure.
Backers had seized on the promise of match funding from the Thatcher government to create an enterprise centre in the town, agreeing to match fund any money that could be raised by the private sector to set up an enterprise agency.
The venture also came together with the Great Yarmouth Business Advisory Service to help job creation and business support in both towns.
But the initiative has more than outgrown those Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth origins, becoming a successful organisation which today is a regional player in enterprise development and support and is eyeing up national ambitions to help businesses across the country.
To date it has helped more than 10,000 businesses start up and now has nearly 20 offices covering four counties, including the Orbis Energy Centre in Lowestoft and the Beacon Innovation Centre in Gorleston.
And this week it was announced that long-cherished plans to open a new centre at the Nora development in King’s Lynn could be set to come to fruition after the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership shortlisted the project for a £2.5m loan to help get it off the ground.
Not surprisingly, NWES staff have been celebrating those achievements which have helped businesses both large and small get off the ground and you would think that as the government continually wrestles with the question of how to kickstart growth that ministers would do well to look at the NWES model.
Chief executive Kevin Horne was stuck in a job working as a bank manager when his bosses offered him a secondment from his branch in Holt to work for NWES in Lowestoft.
It was a move which transformed his career and saw him become chief executive – a post he has now held for 15 years.
“I thought it would be a really interesting change and within about two weeks of starting I realised that I didn’t want to do anything else,” he said.
Mr Horne set about pursuing a strategy of expanding beyond the Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth area, which has paid dividends in building up the organisation.
“We started to grow our footprint and offer more services,” he said. “We had a policy of investing all our surpluses in property as we saw our long-term strategy as increasing our property portfolio. That brought in tenant income which would help subsidise other services we provide.
“But we don’t just rent space, we are there to help the business grow and help make contacts in their particular industries. The idea is to nurture them so that they can go off and buy their own place.
“For some businesses it’s a stepping stone from working from home and we can offer facilities such as office space for meetings or a mailing address, as long as it’s legal we are happy to help! We have got a real focus in growing businesses in areas such as offshore, but at the other end of the spectrum we also work to help those who have been unemployed for a couple of years start up their own trade. We have got about 300 tenants in sectors from offshore, IT to food-and-drink.
“It’s a real spectrum and 40pc of our start-ups are women.
“We have a three year survival rate of over 78pc and research by Barclays has shown that businesses supported by NWES are likely to grow 20pc more quickly and have a 20pc greater chance of survival, so they can see the benefit.”
That research is likely to provide the next step in NWES’s evolution as it teams up with the bank later this month in a national scheme to help start ups access finance. For my advisors who see people coming through, they never know what to expect and that’s what keeps it fresh.
“But it’s not just about numbers, we do know the area and what I’m really interested in is the outcomes and the impact we have on our local area and society.”
But Mr Horne said the key to its future and existing success had been the work of its staff. “NWES is the staff, it isn’t me or the board, it’s the staff who have helped these businesses along the way.”
Tucked away on Pottergate is one of Norwich’s best kept secrets, but it might not stay that way for long.