Thursday, 14 December 2017

It's time we all made a right royal success of trade

“There is a certain irony, that with the UK population engrossed in the full flow of certain high-profile divorce proceedings, all of a sudden the papers are full of the official announcement of an event that will see the younger generation of the Royal Family recreating our historic trans-Atlantic union.  No doubt it will be seen as yet another British snub to the House of Europe that Harry failed to find a European princess to marry ” exclaimed the BattleAxe as she swiped through the glossy acres of pictures of the Fifth in Line to the Throne plus bride to be.  
“You know, businesses could learn a lot from the Royals” she mused. “Their presence was well and truly visible across Europe well before anyone thought of the EEC let alone the EU. After all Queen Victoria managed to either populate the major royal palaces of the world single handedly (with a nod to Prince Albert of course) or govern the rest directly.  Not of course that I’m saying we should be taking back control of the New World - just think how big the civil service would be!”  The Chief Elf shuddered a major sigh of relief and nodded enthusiastically.
“I see where you’re going” he said. “You mean we should be setting our business net ‘wider still and wider’. But don’t we already do a lot of business with the Rest of the World?”
“Of course we do, but there is much more that we can do – even as relatively small businesses.” The BattleAxe waxed Churchillian, “We Brits have always led the way in so many spheres.  Who was it that invented steam locomotives, light bulbs, computers? More recently we pioneered text messages – starting as BT’s way of testing ISDN lines – and the World Wide Web.  And it’s because of these that the world has become such a small place and the opportunities for UK businesses have become so much broader than in the days when we were masters of shipping bits of heavy engineering around Europe.
“So many SMEs think it’s too much hassle to expand beyond these shores but it doesn’t have to be.  Never let it be said that the BattleAxe doesn’t give credit where it’s due: there are even parts of HM Government that do really good work running programmes helping businesses of all sizes develop their exports. The Department of Trade and Industry has people located in most embassies around the world actively opening doors for British companies.  They do everything from complying with local product safety requirements, to minimising the credit risk of doing business with customers not covered by the UK courts. They can even intervene if they find countries putting up trade barriers such as imposing higher quality standards on foreign goods than locally made.”
“The world is our oyster as they say......... ooh, now there’s an idea for an export business. I wonder if one of our clients has a way of keeping them cold enough to get to Australia!”

This article was originally published December 14th 2017 in Huddersfield Examiner

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Should we be a bit more like Isle of Man? Not everything is as black and white as it seems

“Who is scapegoat of the month then?” asked the BattleAxe as the summary of news headlines appeared on the Chief Elf’s screen. 
“Not that old chestnut again surely – those who chose to preserve their wealth by investing it in low tax regimes?”   Knowing the signs, the Chief Elf settled in for the denouement.
“Anyone would think doing that was illegal!” The BattleAxe warmed to her theme, “OK, so some people do cross the line from avoidance, and evasion really does need to be cracked down on.  But most is as legal as putting cash in ISAs or making pension contributions, both of which reduce your tax bill of course.
“Surely Apple or Google should be able to invest spare cash wherever it will grow fastest so they can research new gizmos, or return it to shareholders in the form of dividends or share buy-backs, or even donate it to charity?
“Talking of pensions, everyone’s pension schemes invest in those nasty big companies that are avoiding tax: because they generate good returns.  So, maybe the trustees will have to tell their members that their retirement income is dropping markedly because those immoral companies have had to pay more tax and so paid lower dividends – and their share prices have dropped too!
“When HMRC had a spat with the then Duke of Westminster a judge stated that: 
Every man is entitled if he can to order his affairs so that the tax attaching under the appropriate Acts is less than it otherwise would be. If he succeeds in ordering them so as to secure this result, then, however unappreciative the commissioners of Inland Revenue or his fellow tax-payers may be of his ingenuity, he cannot be compelled to pay an increased tax. This so-called doctrine of "the substance" seems to me to be nothing more than an attempt to make a man pay notwithstanding that he has so ordered his affairs that the amount of tax sought from him is not legally claimable.’
“So, maybe it’s the tax havens that are at fault and should be made to charge more tax. But what about the folks who live there and are reliant on those financial services salaries?  I mean, what has that paradise in the Irish sea, otherwise known as the Isle of Man got other than investments, a smallish airport, the TT and copious amounts of rain? 
“There is also a lot of evidence that lower tax rates increase collections because then, trying to avoid tax using fancy schemes costs more than you save. 
“A radical thought, with the UK escaping the EU’s rules, why don’t we urge the Government, under regional devolution, to let Yorkshire become even more of a tax haven than we already are?  You heard me right – we’re already seen by some overseas regimes as a tax haven because of our rules on R&D, low corporation tax and social security rates.  
“Now then, just check that we haven’t got any potentially illegal inward investment from Lancashire….”

This article originally appeared in Huddersfield Examiner on 16th November 2017

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Not only Santa is busy in the run-up to festive season; Kirklees Business News You can't start planning too early for Christmas

“I see that the supermarkets are already advertising Christmas hampers,” said the client casually. That statement, echoing from Reception, put the Elves at BattleAxe Towers onto high alert.

It happens every year at this time. The first mention of Christmas kicks off a series of choreographed events that culminate a little before midnight on 31 January the following year when the last of the tax returns has been submitted (for those who send their information in last minute!).

“Right, lets take a look at who hasn’t provided information yet; which accounts are outstanding and who the tardy ones were last year;…..oh, and include you-know-who on the first chase up list as he’s always late!” the BattleAxe announced as she flew down the stairs to meet the unsuspecting client.

“And bring me the latest holiday calendar and requests,” she added as the Chief Elf scurried off “we’re not running a low-cost airline and we can’t just cancel tax returns on a whim!”

“I’d never thought about holiday scheduling around Christmas before,” the client ruminated. “Well this is your first year with fulltime employees, so it’s no surprise” the BattleAxe said. “But Christmas is the busiest time for you and you’ve always ended up taking on casuals before.”  “That’s true”, the client responded proudly, “but with the new team on-board I won’t need to do that again this year!”

“Are you sure about that? Have you thought about your growth and particularly the export work you’ve been doing?  You’re up over 200% year to date and if that continues won’t it mean that you need to start earlier to deliver overseas on time but still have the same push to meet the later UK orders? Especially with Christmas falling on a Monday this year.”

“It's a MONDAY?” the client looked suddenly concerned, “but then we won’t be able to do our normal Christmas Eve deliveries as that would be Sunday… will we get everything out? And I’ll need to get in the raw materials a good three weeks earlier with all the deliveries we’re expecting to go out to Brussels…..   Err, I had better get back and start working out how it’s all going to fit together!” he started to leave, looking shaken.

“Hold on a moment,” said the BattleAxe, firmly, “rather than running off in a panic, let’s take 5 minutes to get your priorities in order. Otherwise you will overlook things like vacations or ignore new regulations or forget that those special orders will be going to Strasbourg not Brussels!” 

“But where do I start?......”

“You need to capture all the possible variables so that you can get a clear picture.  Talking it through always helps.  Once we’re there, we can look at how you physically make the deliveries. So, come on!”  the client looked reassured as they headed towards the well-used whiteboard.

“By the way, there’s a long established outfit that only do Christmas Eve deliveries – run by some white-bearded chap…but I hear you have to book him early!”

Originally appeared in Huddersfield Examiner on 12th October 2017

Thursday, 14 September 2017

When the greatest ideas come from making mistakes; HOW DO YOU SPOT AN OPPORTUNITY WHERE OTHERS ONLY SEE DISASTER?

If it’s not on Strava – it didn’t happen!” It’s a daily mantra amongst the swimming, running and riding (particularly those who do all three in one event) fraternity that the BattleAxe “relaxes” with.  
Few of them realise that Strava came about following an accident.  Mark Gainey, the founder, suffered serious injuries when his bike hit a pothole, shattering his left arm.  Like lots of good products Strava went from the germ of an idea, one Gainey’d had at college, to launch in 2009 and now has £54m of investment - even if it still hasn’t made a profit.  
If he hadn’t had time recovering from 11 operations, would we ever know the heights the BattleAxe has cycled to this week?
Prompted by the thought, the BattleAxe trawls the archives, looking for household names that only became so as a result of something going Pete Tong. 
Probably the best known is something that the BattleAxe avoids because of a serious allergy – Penicillin.  A discarded, contaminated Petri dish grew mould that, Fleming noticed, was killing the bacteria around it.
More promisingly, Percy Spencer ended up with a pocket of sticky “candy” when working on radar research.  Putting kernels near the machine and getting popcorn, he discovered the microwave. He didn’t do quite so well with his second attempt – an egg that exploded!
Scotchgard was developed to stop engines from deteriorating.  A spillage on a shoe which, unexpectedly, stayed clean whilst the rest of the footwear succumbed to the grime of day to day life saw the development of this indispensable protector.
A haphazard Canon engineer resting his soldering iron on his pen saw ink shoot out – and the inkjet printer was born!
Looking up from Wikipedia the Chief Elf added to the list, “X-rays, Post-It Notes, Silly Putty, the contraceptive pill, Viagra, potato chips, the slinky,….” 
“STOP!” exclaimed the BattleAxe, “we could be here all day!” 
“Is there anything that didn’t happen by accident?” mused the Chief Elf.  
“Of course there has been!” The BattleAxe mused: “Makes you wonder though, how many amazing ideas or products get missed because a business owner writes something off as a bad job?  Some people succeed by coming up with an idea and sticking with it, but the real commercial brains are the ones that can spot opportunity where others only see disaster.  
That ability to take a step back, brush yourself down, look past the debris on your work bench and see the next product to take the world by storm is a mark of product genius.   Even when a product doesn’t take off, it’s original concept is a disaster, it’s no longer useful or people start to use it differently - who’d have thought we’d use a mobile phone to take photographs!, take a moment to think, can it be adapted, re-purposed or even taken apart and used for a new invention?”
“You still need the spark of an idea of course, and you could do worse than listen to that often heard customer feedback:  “If only you’d got something that would ……..””.
This article originally appeared in Huddersfield Examiner on 14th September 2017

Thursday, 17 August 2017

You're playing with the big boys, enjoy it - Are you ready for that 'Premier League' contract?

You’ve built a good, sound and solid business. Then you get that call: the one offering that multiple turnover contract .   You’ve dreamed of this for years - but are you ready for the Premier League? What do you need to merely cope with that scale of contract? Think of everything you’ll need to do!  
In the wee small hours, the RollingPinPhone rang. It was just such an agitated business owner whimpering – “Where do I start?”
The BattleAxe, in her normal assertive way, told him stop worrying and put a plan together! 
“Your customer facing staff have done you proud for years, but do they have the polish that the new customer expects? Everyone will need some extra training to make sure that your speed of reaction is up to the job. You’ll probably also need new team members with experience in dealing with larger customers.  Remember, it’s not just the number of staff on the shop floor it’s about their skill sets, match fitness and terrier-like persistence!  And don’t forget, that type of staff don’t come cheap so think about upping your selling price – you can’t just rely on volumes going up.” She said.
“And as for those uniforms – time for a revamp and maybe you need to think about the font and logo you use? Something modern and crisp but reflecting your heritage – too much change can put off your existing customers and you’ll still need them to keep buying from you.
Make sure you’ve got the right facilities to handle the increased volume of business.  It’s not just about having the factory running 24 hours a day – you’ll need more storage space; the canteen open day and night and the cleaners in twice a day and the ability to clean whilst the lines are still working.  Then make sure that your IT and accounting functions can cope with the extra volume of traffic.”  She could hear a pencil scribbling frantically.
“The new contract will raise your profile so capitalise on this – but don’t forget it needs to be planned with Germanic precision!  There’s nothing worse than not performing when you’re in the public eye.  If you fail to deliver the goods, you can be sure that it will soon get around that you’re easy competition and you’ll have to fight back up the suppliers’ league table again.
And last but not least, make sure you have a plan if the dream contract ends!  Build in clauses so that the customer covers the costs of scaling back or factor it into your pricing strategy – not forgetting that price rises may not go down too well with loyal customers.  Maybe you could give them a discount for multi-buys or signing up for a year’s supply contract?”
By this time, the BattleAxe could hear the client’s knees knocking and wanted to reassure him. “Most importantly, you’re playing with the big boys now, don’t forget to enjoy that success – business can be the most beautiful game if played right you know!”

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Don’t Take Your Loyal Customers For Granted!

It started sometime around the third week of April.  With increasing frequency since then, the BattleAxe has been seen wandering the corridors of BattleAxe HQ shaking her head and tutting - even more than normal. Her deep sighs have been those of a baffled and desolate woman.  
Eventually this week, at an Elf team meeting her high-horse mounted, she made her views clear through the following mantra:
“Lesson Number 1 in business is to understand the needs of your target market(s). 
Lesson Number 2, is to make sure core products aren’t in stock one day, not available the next, then back again on the shelves a week later. 
Lesson Number 3: communicate with your loyal clientele in a way that leaves them feeling loved and wanted – make them feel special.”
The Elves seemed confused as to why the BattleAxe felt the need to remind them of this.  “Isn’t that obvious to everyone?” ventured the Chief Elf, “after all, the majority of business is really all about your customers, not about bigging up you as an entity.”
“One would think so,” the BattleAxe responded (for once overlooking the Jamaicanism), “but the last few weeks have shown that there are some that just don’t appear to have worked it out.  Their marketing gurus seem to have overlooked the basics and focused on brand rather than substance.  Not only that, but core product items were changed without even talking to the heads of the departments affected – the people who actually have the data and know the customers best. 
“The sad thing is that, as a result, they’ve had to shed jobs and lost some really good local staff.  Furthermore their bargaining power with suppliers and international distributors has been seriously weakened.” 
“If only they’d taken heed of the basic rules, their customers would keep coming back year in year out.  And they’d have been able to do it without feeble attempts at attracting a whole new fickle customer base by “updating” much-loved stock lines, thereby leaving loyal customers without the very products they’ve bought for years! 
“It doesn’t mean that a business doesn’t need to evolve over time – life changes.  Neither does it mean that they can’t try new things alongside established standards.  
It’s not like we’ve not seen the impact of all this before. M&S getting close to the brink misjudging their market. HMV appointing liquidators after over 90 years. Woollies losing its wonder to the likes of Wilko, not to mention the big supermarkets having underestimated the German discounters and now, apparently, ignoring Amazon and eBay’s potential impact in challenging the very need for shops as we’ve known them.
“What it does mean is that none of us in business can afford to be complacent and we definitely can’t act like we know best, simply assuming that longstanding customers will follow no matter what’s on offer.  
As recent events show, behaving that way means that we’ll wake up to find closed outlets as they rapidly lose their hold on the market.” 

Thursday, 18 May 2017

The Right Resources in the Right Place

When she set off on her Saturday triathlon training a couple of weeks ago the BattleAxe had no idea it would be the subject of her next KBN musings.
The training involved a run through the “stunning” Yorkshire countryside. Unfortunately, that description turned out to be rather closer to the mark than anticipated.  A serious reaction to the flowering oil seed rape, which decorated the run route gave the BattleAxe a not-so-funny turn.  
Suffice it to say that one significant positive was the tender and very effective ministrations of the ambulance crew (who she would like to thank profusely for their swift and successful actions) and the second was the very grateful fact that the very yellow fields concerned were within a short ambulance ride of Pinderfields hospital.
Thankfully, by the time that the Chief Elf arrived, flustered and concerned, the ambulance team and the medics had the BattleAxe up on her feet, jogging on the spot and waving her rolling pin like a good’un.
Once home and relaxing, she announced the need for a recuperative cuppa.  One of the BattleAxe’s other foibles is that her tea contains milk of the almond, not the cow and, to the Chief Elf’s horror, there was none to be found in the BattleAxe’s fridge!  
Although it is easier to source almond milk these days, the Chief Elf realised to his dismay that the supermarket near BattleAxe Towers was closed and he might have to drive to the outskirts of Huddersfield to get to the hypermarket which might (fingers crossed) have some in stock.  
Thankfully, he was able to only travel as far as the conveniently located local shop as they had the good sense to be both open and to have stock of the correct white liquid - almond milk unsweetened of course! so the Chief Elf was able to return just in time as the kettle came to the boil thus avoiding the flying rolling pin.
These experiences set the BattleAxe thinking about the value for all businesses of having the right resources in the right place for their customers.  
“Isn’t it strange” she said, “that just when supermarket chains are recognising that they need a local presence – even if only carrying a fraction of their hypermarket stocklines – that the NHS and other public sector bodies are going the other way?”
“Well,” the Chief Elf ventured, “isn’t that all about having centres of excellence?”
“Yes, I suppose you could see it that way,” replied the BattleAxe.  But when you have to travel too far to access the excellence or really only need the basics doesn’t it lose some of its value? I mean, if you had gone to town to get milk I’d have lost all interest in waiting and I’d have had a black coffee by the time you got back!”
She paused “The ambulance arrived quickly and we were close enough to the hospital that, had it been a drastic situation with the need for blue flashing lights, I would have got access to nearby medical care pronto. This afternoon, luckily for us, and mainly you! I only needed the basics so there really was no need for the hypermarket trek.
”The moral of the story? You need to have the right resources in the right place for your customers whether you’re a business or a public service!”

Friday, 28 April 2017

An unpresedented amount of unpresedentedness

For some commentators it has been a “totally unprecedented” 12 months with Britain voting for Brexit, Donald becoming US president, Marine in the final two and now Theresa calling a snap general election.  None of them anticipated by the pundits and so, according to them, the rest of us should be feeling deeply unsettled, un-nerved and, as businesses, unwilling to make decisions.  
Some in the press seem to be delighting in saying “what is going to derail us next?”  
Stepping back from the headlines, what has really changed for SMEs in the UK (or Europe, the US or anywhere else)?  
The BattleAxe conducted poll of her own and 9 out of ten owners said their businesses weren’t seeing anything out of the ordinary…..or to put it another way: “Nowt’s changed!” 
All reported normal worries about making sure they sell enough; that customers pay on time; that suppliers deliver and don’t hike their prices; and keeping their fingers crossed that staff turn up after the all-night election coverage.  
Yes, currency movements impacting costs concern them but most see this as a blip and none saw a risk that the supply chain will break down.  In fact “businesses all over the world need to sell to survive and no government will cut off the tax paying hand that feeds them” is what one told the BattleAxe.
Yet there’s still a word left hanging in the air, full of meaning and emphasis:  “but…”
“So what’s the issue then?”  the BattleAxe muses as she polishes her rolling pin, “why is business behaving like its doubting its self-confidence when nothing has fundamentally changed?”
Then realisation strikes: “Ah yes, it’s like coming down from Holme Moss on my bike – I don’t entirely believe that the brakes will stop me at the bottom! I know that the likelihood is miniscule, but I read online that someone did come off on a hill recently so it could happen!”  The repeated implication of problems ahead eventually breeds doubt on everything from whether Europe might shut us out to whether Trump could decide to bomb Holmfirth chasing ISIS insurgents.  After all, no-one expected the somewhat depleted Swinton Lions to play a blinder against the Giants, did they? 
There are three ways of dealing with this nagging voice in your head - ignore it and hope it won’t happen; plan for every eventuality no matter how remote, including oil, brake cables failing and a puncture all on the same corner; or business as normal with an escape plan for the steepest slopes.  The Elves sometimes go for option 2 – its virtue being it rarely leaves them disappointed - but it does use a lot of time that could be better employed on billable work.
The BattleAxe recommends option 3 - her plan is to get those brakes checked ahead of the First of the Summer Tri on 14 May and make sure that there are marshals suitably positioned at the bottom of the long hills…..after all, rolling rolling-pins gather no moss!

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

This Lady’s not for turning?

The words of a certain prime minister echoed in the BattleAxe’s ears as she was urging No 10’s current occupant to ignore that quote and see sense on draconian media fuelled tax decisions.

Mrs May was clearly listening. She promptly ordered a U turn on the rise in National Insurance for the Self Employed announced by her next door Hamster in the Budget.  An increase he “justified” on the basis it wasn’t fair that the self-employed paid less than employees. However, he forgot that the self-employed don’t get statutory sick pay; have no right to paid holidays; don’t get pension contributions (because there is no such thing as Auto-Enrolment for the self-employed) nor lots of other benefits of employee status.  Their lower rate of NICs has always been a means of putting a little bit more away each month towards exactly those insurances and pensions.  Thankfully Mrs May helped Spreadsheet Phil “review” the idea and the concept disappeared – the BattleAxe having already offered a rolling pin to knock some sense into the Chancellor.

A slightly less vigorous deviation is on the Making Tax Digital strategy where businesses will need to file accounting data with HMRC more than once a year.  Given the state of HMRC’s existing systems and their proven inability to maintain accurate records, news of a further year’s delay gave rise to a huge collective sigh of relief within BattleAxe HQ.

Then there’s the new rules on how freelancers working for public authorities through limited companies are taxed. Another knee-jerk reaction to the media whipping up misunderstanding.  A few cases of abuse mean all freelancers working for the NHS, government departments and local authorities will potentially be penalised.  Historically the tax payers made the decision on whether they were really employees and it was their risk if they got it wrong!  Now it’s the public bodies’ decision and risk. So, what odds they won’t err on the side of caution and misclassify even genuine client/supplier relationships?

No sign of an Exchequer U Turn on this – yet! But there are many freelancers – including locum doctors and nurses who keep the NHS going – who are taking to the exit ramps and accelerating away from the public sector and, in some cases, the UK. Those staying are demanding higher daily rates to compensate for the new tax. So any potential extra tax being collected (the BattleAxe isn’t convinced it will be any) may well be outweighed by the additional costs of keeping the public sector running.  Hold on: that could explain the delay on Making Tax Digital – maybe HMRC can’t afford the staff to implement it! The BattleAxe will make doubly sure she doesn’t fall off her bike at the next triathlon in case there’s no-one in A&E to patch her up.

So, Mrs M, ignore Mrs T: U Turns aren’t always a bad thing!  Better still make sure the Cabinet engage brain before making announcements – the BattleAxe can help with the thinking process… on a freelance basis, of course.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Cash Flow is King

Whether you are in business or not, you’ll have heard the phrase ‘cash flow is king’, many times before. The saying has never been more true in this time of uncertainty when businesses of all shapes and sizes are just paused waiting to see what happens next This is making the mammoth task of  trying to balance the books even more difficult than usual.

One of the most difficult tasks any small business owner can face is how to chase up an overdue invoice. I say difficult because the SME has to navigate a tricky path between having their bill paid and not falling out with the customer. Here are some tips that will help any small business owner chase up overdue invoices:

Check payment runs - find out when customers make payment runs and what the cut off is. There’s no point in submitting the invoice on the 20th if the cut off for that month's payment run is the 19th!

Make it easy to pay – You should have a clear collection policy in place outlining credit terms, how you will collect money and any overdue payments.
Make invoices clear – having a good system in place to record invoices is key. There are many software packages available like Free Agent that our clients use that make it very easy for you to track payments. Remember also that, the last time a company can object to an invoice they receive is on the day they receive it. After that time, they cannot quibble and dispute it.       
Follow customer instructions – large companies in particular often have strict systems for paying. Maybe they want a special invoice number – so make one for them. Also, ensure that it’s consistent throughout your communications to avoid confusion.

Follow up promptly – Make sure you have a consistent collection procedure and always follow up as promptly as possible. Keep a close eye on patterns in which clients generally pay; and ask yourself whether this fits in with your billing cycle? If the client does not pay ten days after the invoice is due, send them a ten-day letter re-iterating the fact that the invoice is due and (politely!) asking for payment.

Be polite – Shouting threats is not going to do you, or your business, any favours. If all else fails, and the client is ignoring you, or refusing to pay the bill, then consider whether you really want their business in the future, and make a decision about whether or not it’s worthwhile to apply to a county court (used to be known as small claims court) to claim money you’re owed by a person or business. You can process a claim for money owed up to a value of £100,000 online. This covers most debts owed to SMEs; but if the debt exceeds this level, consult a solicitor. More information can be found at

Consider as well that the business could also be going through tough times, or they could be unhappy with the service you have provided. Either way, your main aim is make them pay their bill. Remember cash flow is king. 

This article appeared in Huddersfield Examiner, Kirklees Business News February Edition page 14