Seven out of 10 (69 per cent) Midlands’ business leaders are confident of returning to pre-pandemic levels of growth in 2021 according to a new report released today (3 December 2020).
The research, published by Story Comms, shows an upbeat spirit despite the majority of business leaders (78 per cent) reporting that they have not yet ‘bounced back’ from the impact of COVID-19.
The research also reveals that the pandemic has provoked a major shift towards diversification – and that it is here to stay. More than three quarters (77 per cent) of those surveyed said their business had added new services or products in response to the pandemic. 62 per cent have plans to continue developing services or products in 2021.
The new data forms part of Story’s Midlands: Graft and Grow report, which saw the comms consultancy survey 50 Midlands’ senior business leaders and interview 18 decision makers from organisations including EY UK, Midlands Connect, NatWest, Avison Young and the BPFS Black Leaders Network. The report culminates with five pointers for growth in 2021 -based on the insight provided by the region’s business leaders.
Amanda Lowe, founder and Managing Director of Story Comms, said: “Our new Midlands: Graft and Grow report charts the hardest year for the region’s business community – possibly ever. In it, we tell the stories of those who have been driving our economy forward against the gargantuan force of a global recession and social uncertainty.
“From innovation and product development, Black Lives Matter to Brexit and levelling up – our discussions left no stone unturned. The result? A report that explores the Midlands’ spirit of getting on, working hard and pushing forward – grafting and growing. We hope the insights we found and distilled will be used by other companies, communities and individuals as they get set for the year ahead.”
On Brexit, Story’s research revealed that 61 per cent of leaders are not concerned – citing that the UK’s full departure from the EU is unlikely to impact their business. However, over half of leaders (62 per cent) stated that their businesses are not ready for Brexit should there be major changes.
On Brexit, Shalom Lloyd, Managing Director of Naturally Tribal Skincare, said: “We’ve focused so much on the c-word and forgotten about the b-word. Brexit. For companies like us that are product-based and export, Europe is a huge target market.
“Are we ready? No, we’re not. We have focused so much on keeping the business, maintaining market share and trying to get our products out there because of COVID that Brexit has crept up on us. So, we’ve got two things that we’re dealing with right now.”
When asked on the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, only 15 per cent of business leaders stated that they were satisfied with the progress made in reducing regional disparities in economic growth across the UK.
On ‘levelling up’, Paul Faulkner, CEO at Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, said: “I’m sceptical that real meaningful devolution is on the way when you have a government that is so centralised. The white paper isn’t going to add any huge power or funding into the regions because that would run counter to how the government is operating.”
Maria Machancoses, director at Midlands Connect, added: “Historically, when people talk about the levelling up agenda, they think of the North and the Midlands gets lost. The narrative hasn’t been there. We’ve worked very hard to put the Midlands on the map and influencing central government. Our region is at the heart of it all, and if you invest in Midlands’ infrastructure, naturally other regions will benefit.”
The research also highlighted the work that still needs to be done to combat racism. Over two thirds (69 per cent) of the leaders surveyed said that for their business, the Black Lives Matter movement is yet to instil organisational change, with nearly a quarter (22 per cent) stating that they need to improve action in this area.
Joel Blake OBE, founder of The GFA Exchange and co-founder of BPFS Black Leaders Network, said: “It’s a global watershed moment that businesses and people can now do the things they’ve always said they will do, but just not done. The BPFS Black Leaders Network was set up because I was frustrated about the lack of black leaders that I can talk to in the professional services sector, so we’ve brought together a group of people from decision making strategic roles to fill the gap that’s existed for the last 10-15 years.
“It’s all about sharing best practices, experiences, knowledge in a positive and educative way in a peer-to-peer format, so even if you’re not a black leader you can still be part of that network and learn and grow together. We needed an equitable voice in this space and this is why it’s so important – it was time to do something rather than just talking about it.”
The road to recovery for Midlands’ businesses may remain uncertain, but 71 per cent of leaders surveyed reported that pursuing new market opportunities would be a key priority for 2021. Almost a quarter (23 per cent) also revealed plans to begin recruiting, with 77 per cent aiming to invest more in marketing and communications to aid growth in 2021.