Fastest growing firms in Wales

Next week, the search for this year’s fastest growing Welsh companies comes to an end.

Applications for the 2008 Wales Fast Growth 50 (FG50) project have to be submitted by July 31st 2008 to be eligible for this year’s supplement, to be published by the Western Mail in October. All the fifty firms selected will also be shortlisted for the Wales Fast Growth 50 awards, which will be celebrated at a gala dinner at the Holland House Hotel, to be hosted by Declan Curry of BBC Breakfast News fame.

Not many people are aware that, this year, the FG50 actually celebrates a decade of identifying the entrepreneurial firms of the future. The origins of the project started after I had arrived at the University of Glamorgan in 1996 to establish the Welsh Enterprise Institute.

After a couple of years of creating the right infrastructure to take the Institute forward, I felt the time was right for a publication to celebrate the best of Welsh entrepreneurs.

That may seem strange to people today but a decade ago, inward investment was king and the Welsh Development Agency or the Welsh Office had little interest in the small firm sector. At the same time, the Western Mail was looking to expand its portfolio of business magazines. Following numerous meetings, the concept of identifying the fastest growing firms in Wales was developed and the first supplement launched in May 1999.

Today, the FG50 remains the only regional barometer of growth firms in the UK, and whilst there are pale imitators in the market-place, they rely solely on data generated from Companies House. This is because it is an extremely difficult process to collect the information from the firms, most of whom do not actually publish their turnover data. Therefore, it is the relationship we form with the companies that gives us the information required.

For example, only two of last year’s twenty fastest growing firms had their up-to-date turnover figures available to the public, so it is the research we undertake every year for the Wales Fast Growth 50 which makes the project so valuable. Yet again, there are going to be some major surprises yet again in this year’s listing that very few will be aware of.

There remains considerable research to be undertaken on fast growth companies in Wales but the experience of the last decade seems to be the opposite of the development of policies in this field. For example, the policy focus by the Assembly on a small number of sectors seems completely out of kilter with the findings of the FG50 project, as growth can occur in any industry.

Given that it is the business to business sector (i.e. those firms that provide services to other businesses) that has made the biggest impact since the project began, it is surprising that there is no specific support to help develop this sector further.

Most importantly, we tend to find that it is new innovative approaches within traditional sectors by entrepreneurs who are ‘thinking out of the box’ who make the biggest difference. Indeed, very few high technology firms have appeared within the last nine FG50 lists, although this may reflect the weakness of the sector here in Wales.

Growth can also at any stage of development and is not just limited to start-ups. Every year, we get the occasional rapidly growing new venture but it still surprises many that the average age of the FG50 company is ten years old. This reflects detailed research from the US into such ‘gazelles’ or high potential companies which shows that maturity and growth do go hand in hand.

Last week, I was discussing the FG50 project with a number of the more successful firms that had been featured on the listings and they asked me if there were any disappointments from the project. I replied that there was only one, namely the lack of engagement by politicians and policymakers towards the project.

Indeed, it is disappointing that the Welsh Assembly Government has chosen not to support the project or the dinner, given that the fifty companies on the list showcases the best of the entrepreneurial talent across Wales. At a time when we are facing a possible recession, now is the time to support a project which clearly demonstrates how the Welsh business sector can perform with the best.

Given that there are approximately 200,000 businesses in Wales, the fifty selected every year can be rightly described as the elite of the Welsh business sector. Since 1999, 295 firms have appeared on the nine listings to date, generating over £2billion of sales turnover and creating over 10,000 jobs. Yes, some have closed their operations and have been taken over by other companies, as would be expected with a group of fast growing businesses. However, the vast majority remain as independent growing operations that continue to make a real difference to the Welsh economy and will do for years to come. I am proud to be involved in the FG50 project as the firms involved are a credit to Wales and the Welsh economy. Long may they prosper.

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