Time to Transform – The Small Firms Association Annual Conference 2018


The SFA Annual Conference 2018 will bring together 300 entrepreneurs, owner-managers, policy makers and media to discuss the latest trends in HR, management and innovation providing an opportunity to come together to make connections and learn from each other’s experiences. The Conference is a half-day event on 24 May in the UCD Science Centre, moderated by TV3’s Colette Fitzpatrick.

Next week, the SFA conference will explore how companies can create competitive advantage in the current economic and business environment. A mix of keynote addresses and panel discussions will focus on how small businesses can stay competitive, gain access to and retain talent and deal with new regulatory challenges such as GDPR.

We speak to Olaf Fitzsimmons, Head of SME East in Ulster Bank in advance of the SFA Conference taking place next Thursday, 24th of May in Dublin, in O'Brien Centre for Science, UCD. Ulster Bank are the key partner to the SFA of their conference this year.


1. Why is Ulster Bank supporting the conference?

We are very pleased to be the Key Event Partner for the SFA Conference 2018. It shows our ongoing commitment and support for the SME sector and our desire to help Irish SME’s grow their businesses and realise their ambitions.

The conference itself will address the topics of digital transformation, competitiveness and GDPR. From our interactions with our own customers, as well as from our support of the Business Achievers platform (Business-achievers.com), which is a digital platform that allows Irish SMEs to extend their business network and get support to help their business grow, we know that these topics are highly relevant to Irish SME’s at present.

Furthermore from a digital transformation perspective, banking, like any other sector of the economy is heavily impacted by this. At Ulster Bank innovation and transformation are core elements of our strategy.

Our strategic partnership with Dogpatch Labs places us firmly within the SME innovation ecosystem – enabling us to nurture, support and collaborate with innovative SMEs.
Recent collaborations include the Ulster Bank Hackathon, where we have harnessed external talent to contribute to our digital transformation.

The conference has a clear focus on this for SME’s and we will also be able to share our own experience in this area with the SME’s present.


2. What are the key challenges facing SMEs in 2018?

Whilst the economic backdrop is positive, that doesn’t mean running a business has become any easier and as we work with our customers to support them in their day to day businesses, the key challenges they tell us they are facing are staffing, the potential impact of Brexit, managing growth and finally knowing if they are really making money or not.

On the staffing front it is both an issue to retain key staff with some emerging wage pressures as well as trying to recruit new talent to help drive the business forward – there is more competition than ever for these people and it can be challenging for an SME in particular to compete for this talent against larger better known organisations.


‘Ulster Bank has €50 million available to help SMEs and mid-corporates invest and innovate in their businesses’

Olaf Fitzsimmons, Head of SME Banking East, Ulster Bank


As regards Brexit, a lot of SME’s are understandably unsure exactly what it will mean for their business. This in turn is leading to a degree of caution around investment and other big decisions in their business.
Another challenge that we see SME’s facing is that of managing growth successfully – when the firm is expanding it can put a stretch on everyone to manage new products, new customers or markets or dealing with new suppliers.

The final challenge I would call out is that of staying on top of the numbers – when sales are growing it can lead to false comfort that the business is making money. We are seeing some of our clients really focus on their financials to ensure they understand which products, services and customers are profitable for them.


3. How can SMEs improve their competitiveness and achieve their ambitions?

To improve their competitiveness we see Irish SME’s taking a range of different approaches. Some are looking to scale up and increase sales to achieve greater efficiency and cover their fixed costs better. Through term loan funding or leasing we can support their investment in new or increased premises, production equipment or increased staffing.

Where those SME’s are looking to expand abroad we can support their foreign exchange needs. For firms that need to fund working capital due to increased sales, we offer a flexible Invoice Discounting product that unlocks cash that would otherwise be trapped in bills owed by their customers.

Some firms will also choose to innovate and find new processes and ways of working to make themselves more efficient. This can particularly be the case as firms look to increase their competitiveness to deal with any perceived threats from Brexit.

In this regard Ulster Bank is well positioned to support them through our participation in the SBCI Brexit Loan Scheme where we have €50m available for Irish SME’s and mid-corporates to invest and innovate in their businesses. We are one of just two banks that are currently offering this product and would strongly encourage any SME looking to invest in their business and who are Brexit exposed to consider if this is something they should avail of.

4. Brexit is a significant consideration for SME companies in Ireland at the moment, are there still opportunities?

There definitely are opportunities to be grasped and one of the great aspects of the role that I have in leading our SME teams in Greater Dublin and beyond is witnessing the fantastic initiative that Irish SME’s demonstrate day to day in winning new business, entering new markets and growing their businesses as a result.

The caution that SME’s demonstrate is a healthy one as it shows they are weighing up the risks before they make significant business or investment decisions. This is a positive and should enable them to be more successful as a result.

We are seeing SME’s positively address their Brexit concerns by seeking to diversify away from the UK market and some have been successful in securing new sales orders or develop new markets in Europe or often further afield. A lot of them have made good use of the various supports and assistance available through the likes of Enterprise Ireland in both assessing the opportunities and subsequently winning export business.

Interestingly we are also seeing some situations where Irish SME’s are being offered the opportunity to displace imported UK products as retailers and other importers in particular, look to manage their exposure to Brexit also.



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