Entrepreneurs Forum

Break for the border

Tuesday 10 July 2012 8:00

Andrew Mernin

As Santander bids to become the UK’s SME bank of choice, its bandwagon of executives and ambassadors rolled into Yorkshire recently ready to impress.

While Santander’s Breakthrough programme was officially launched last November, the charm offensive driving it remains at full throttle.

Earlier this year the Spanish bull’s brightest people shook up the dust and trundled into Leeds city centre, looking to impress all who would listen.

Amid the throng was chief exec Ana Botin and a top line-up of shining examples of global success in business.

That such effort is being made by a bank to prove its worth to small business leaders perhaps shows just how little faith entrepreneurs now have in the banking system.

A flashy show of force from Santander at the University of Leeds complete with a cast of inspirational cheerleaders from the upper echelons of the business world isn’t enough alone to repair damaged reputations of course.

But Breakthrough does hold the keys to a £200m funding pot for companies turning over between £500,000 and £10m each year.

The inevitable catch is that only companies posting 10% growth in turnover, profit or employment qualify.

This will surely weed out any applicants struggling to survive on a failing business model and still coming to terms with the drying up of previously easy-to-come-by European or public funding.

Since SMEs account for 59% of private sector employment and almost half of commercial turnover, Santander says, they are vital in terms of job and wealth creation.

Furthermore, says the Spanish giant: “We will also ensure that any company selected for the programme will have access to some of the best advice and talent available, including businesspeople who have already established their own companies as market leaders on a national and global stage.

“We’re looking for the very best businesses in each region, regardless of their current banking partner. The growth capital loan facility is a vital component of the scheme as a whole. Essentially, we aim to help SMEs plug the funding gap."

Alongside fieldtrips to the likes of Google – and an ‘enternship’ programme which aims to attract the best talent around – much of the focus of Breakthrough is on cracking new export markets.

With a little help from UKTI, the scheme runs trade missions with its growthhungry customers to strategic new territories.

Three Yorkshire-based businesses recently attended a trip to the US with Santander, all returning to the wet British summer with clearer visions of their American dream.

Health sector technology firm Image Analysis, based in Leeds and nut-free food products manufacturer It’s Nut Free, of Northallerton, both sought to gain more insight into US entry points within their respective industries.

Also harbouring stateside ambitions is Sheffield-based Bag It Don’t Bin It, which was founded by Julia Gash (pictured above) in 2008 and produces branded cloth bags as an eco-friendly alternative to plastic bags for brands such as Waterstone’s, Lush and Liberty of London.

The firm turns over more than £1m having developed new markets by creating its own designer bags, which are now sold in department stores and independent retailers around the world.

Before she reluctantly embarked on the Santander-led trade trip, Julia presumed that freight costs to the US would rule out North America as a viable market.

“But I then realised that I couldn’t afford to not do business there,” she says in the aftermath of the US trip.

“It dawned on me that the can-do attitude and support for businesses out there is enormous.

"Doing business out there would be different from the UK where you’re always swimming against the tide, with a lack of support from the banks amongst other things.”

During the Breakthrough Trade Mission to New York and Boston, Julia received an order for 1,000 bags from New York boutique ‘Love Adorned’.

She also received orders from the other delegates, and has already produced and delivered a batch of bags for Exquisite Homemade Cakes.

She is now looking to open an additional manufacturing plant in the US and grow a country-wide customer base there – now that would be a major breakthrough.

READ MORE: Why it pays to bend the rules overseas - The British are pathetic at the exports game says global business champion and Santander Breakthrough ambassador Lara Morgan. Read her export tips here.