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Friday, 14 November 2014 15:22

Small business a growing sector, but doing it tough

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Close to two million new small businesses have opened up their doors in Australia over the past five years, despite little or no revenue growth in the SME sector and the challenges faced in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis.

The latest Business Monitor from cloud accounting software vendor MYOB paints a picture of mixed fortunes for SMEs over the past five years since 2009.

According to MYOB, even with the residual effects of the GFC, small to medium sized business operators showed “remarkable resilience” over the five years.

And, since 2009 the number of small businesses (with 100 or less employees) in Australia has grown by 1.4% to 1.9 million now.

MYOB CEO Tim Reed says the increase in the number of small businesses in Australia has come despite a relatively flat period of revenue growth for the SME sector.

Nevertheless, Reed says the revenue gap has closed in the last half decade, with the difference between the proportion of businesses reporting declining revenue and those seeing revenue gains falling from a net 20% in 2009 to a net 10% this year.

And, Reed says the survey underscores the fact that the period since the recession has been very much characterised by a “two-speed economy”.

“This survey actually shows it may be more accurate to characterise the Australian economy as a ‘two-sized’ economy, with the majority of enterprises working extremely hard to increase revenue, while a small – and declining – number of larger businesses enjoy most of the benefits of economic growth.

“But although the past five years have often been challenging what we are really seeing here is the true spirit of Aussie business: determined, resilient and resourceful.”

According to Reed, SME operators’ confidence in their own business is illustrated by their revenue forecasts over the past five years and, while many expected the effects of the global recession in the early part of the decade to have only a short-term impact on their performance, businesses have remained confident in their revenue expectations over those five years.

The MYOB survey also canvassed the opinions of business operators on the level of support they received from federal government.

Five years ago, dissatisfaction with the then Labor Government was beginning to rise from 39% in mid 2009 to 57% in May 2012, and Labor’s last term was marked by business dissatisfaction approaching or over 50% before the Coalition Government came to power last year.

This latest survey from MYOB reveals, however, that after seeing dissatisfaction fall to 32% in February this year, and an accompanying rise in satisfaction to 24%, dissatisfaction levels with the Coalition Government have now returned to the same levels seen in 2009 under Labor.

According to Reed, the Coalition Government has demonstrated a “business friendly agenda,” but it is likely “some frustration is being seen in the SME sector at the pace of change and the time it is taking for policy initiatives to be felt amongst the nation’s small business community.”

On a more general level, Reed says the past five years has been “quite a test of the mettle of our small business owners and operators, as rising pressures and constrained revenue, coupled with unpredictable international headwinds, have made conditions less favourable than many would have liked.”

“But despite that, local SMEs remain upbeat. They are continuing to invest in their people and their communities; they are doing more – often with fewer resources; and they have increasingly been taking advantage of technology to become more nimble and more innovative.

“I believe that is the real strength of Aussie business – we are adaptable and, with the right Government policies and professional support, can cope with whatever the economy sends our way.”

On investment in the small business sector, Reed says that investment priorities have also remained stable over the past five years, “although as businesses have become more constrained by lower revenue growth, the emphasis on each has reduced”.

The key areas attracting increased investment by SME operators over the five years are customer retention strategies, customer acquisition strategies, and the number or variety of products or services offered.

“Local SMEs have demonstrated a strong customer focus over the last five years, as operators are fully aware how hard-won each new customer is. The issue though has been funding that increased investment as revenue expectations reduce and pressures increase.”

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Peter Dinham

Peter Dinham is a co-founder of iTWire and a 35-year veteran journalist and corporate communications consultant. He has worked as a journalist in all forms of media – newspapers/magazines, radio, television, press agency and now, online – including with the Canberra Times, The Examiner (Tasmania), the ABC and AAP-Reuters. As a freelance journalist he also had articles published in Australian and overseas magazines. He worked in the corporate communications/public relations sector, in-house with an airline, and as a senior executive in Australia of the world’s largest communications consultancy, Burson-Marsteller. He also ran his own communications consultancy and was a co-founder in Australia of the global photographic agency, the Image Bank (now Getty Images).