Newly appointed Small Business Commissioner, Liz Barclay, says it’s the passion and creativity of small businesses that first drew her to them.
“Small business people are really passionate about what they do,” she says. “They’re very creative. They’re willing to innovate and will take risks. They are hugely important to the UK economy.”
But it’s the stories behind the businesses that’s kept her working with them. Behind every small business, there is a personal story, she says. “It’s the stories that really fascinate me. Why did people get passionate about the things they’re passionate about? Why did they set up their business? Why did they want to work for themselves? What kind of mistakes have they made along the way? How did they manage to grow their businesses?
“To me, there’s just a wealth of real human enterprise and entrepreneurship that is utterly fascinating.”
Where it all started?
Liz initially started her career at Citizens Advice, where she worked as a debt advisor. The team heard from many small business owners in debt because the businesses aren’t doing well.
“I became really interested in small businesses and how they operate and how different each one is from the other, and all the various issues they face. Small businesses became a bit of a passion at that point.”
In her role, she helped set up surgeries for small businesses, bringing in experts to share advice on running a business or doing specific things like chase invoices or contracts. “That gave me a real insight and passion for business,” says Liz.
From there, she moved to the BBC, where she set up the pilot scheme that would eventually morph into Action Line, the service you call if you’ve been impacted by anything seen or heard in a programme.
Working at the BBC led to several roles across broadcasting, but all the while remaining with her passion subject – small businesses and consumer affairs.
“My favourite bit in my career is being able to help somebody to make the right decisions to get their life back on track. If you can point somebody in the direction to give them enough information, or build their confidence, or regain contacts, and help them do it for themselves – that’s the bit that really excites me,” says Liz.
In March, Liz was announced as the new Small Business Commissioner, taking over from interim Commissioner Philip King.
“He did an absolutely brilliant job in a very difficult circumstance, given that he was only supposed to be in the role for six months. He was very limited with what he could start to do, and then the pandemic hit,” says Liz.
What is the focus?
Speaking of what she wants her tenure to focus on, she says she would like to harness how we use social media and Zoom to meet more people and more businesses. “We’re the best-kept secret as far as small businesses are concerned. I want to be out there.”
The Small Business Commissioner is an independent public body set up by the government in 2016 to help small businesses secure payments owed to them and help create a culture of prompt payment.
There is around £23.4bn owed to UK businesses in outstanding invoices, with some waiting months before paying their suppliers. Liz’s role is to help change this culture and this practice. She wants to help businesses get paid faster to enable them to invest and grow their businesses.
One of the ways to do this is by encouraging big businesses to sign up for the prompt payment code, which will mean promising to pay suppliers within 30 days.
According to the government, around 20% of small businesses run into cash flow problems due to late payments. However, if small businesses were paid on time, it could boost the economy by around £2.5bn per year.
Plan of action
“Small businesses will drive the UK’s recovery from Covid-19,” says Liz. “What we have to do is help them to get their payments on time.”
This will sometimes involve helping them deal with bigger businesses, helping them negotiate, to understand how to get better payment terms with contracts or invoicing. These things add up to the broader success of small businesses that often don’t have accountants or lawyers.
The next few years, in particular, will be crucial for small businesses as the pandemic has tightened purse strings. The prompt payment of invoices will be vital for survival, according to Liz.
“As you see loans being called in, an awful lot of small businesses will really struggle,” says Liz. “So, we need a lot of understanding between the people to whom the money is owed and the people who owe it. Because if you start asking for your money to be returned before small business has gotten to the point where it’s growing again, it will not work. Very pragmatic decisions are going to need to be made. Otherwise, there could be a perfect storm coming.”