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Business Durham support boosts firms in post-COVID era

2022 was a year of change, as businesses transition to a new normal after two years of disruption caused by the pandemic.  Companies have managed to adapt, innovate and, in some cases, thrive – but many have needed a helping hand along the way.

Business Durham, the business support service of Durham County Council, has supported dozens of businesses through this challenging year, which has been defined by political turmoil at home and abroad, and a cost-of-living crisis that has sent energy bills and raw material costs soaring.  The organisation’s support has been wide-ranging, from providing grant funding and property to practical advice on all aspects of growing a business.

Business Durham also created numerous networking opportunities for businesses – online, face-to-face or based on a hybrid model.  During the pandemic, networking was done almost exclusively online, but with the relaxation of COVID restrictions, many firms returned to in-person meets last year.  This gave them the chance to reconnect at regular events run through business park groups in Durham, Aycliffe, East Durham, Bishop Auckland, Derwentside, Chester le Street (Drum) and Teesdale.  Networking events like these allow businesses to share their challenges, develop ideas and find solutions to real-world issues.

2022 also saw the return of conferences and festivals that have been key dates on the County Durham business calendar.  In March, the North East Space Conference attracted over 130 businesses to explore ways of gaining a foothold in this fast-growing global market.  Organised by the NETPark-based North East Satellite Applications Centre of Excellence – a Business Durham-led consortium that includes the region’s five universities and public and private sector organisations – the event showcased the growth of the sector in the North East and how  local firms are devising innovative ways of solving global problems using space and satellite data and technology.

With a growing focus on businesses moving to Net Zero, companies from across the County Durham were invited to explore how to save money whilst reducing their carbon footprint at business showcase event – Together Towards Net Zero – held in July.

Meanwhile, the annual Durham Ambitious Business Start-Ups (DABS) Festival of Enterprise made a return in October.  Packed full of helpful advice from a high-profile line-up of seasoned entrepreneurs, business leaders, industry experts and thought-leaders, the event explored the different types of support that start-ups need to pivot their businesses during the current challenging economic environment.

2022 was also a successful year for the property portfolio managed by Business Durham, with a 95% occupancy average for the year.  And work on Station Place, a £4.8 million County Durham industrial scheme that will create more than 130 jobs, was completed in November and is ready for tenants to move in.  Delivered in partnership with Merchant Anglo and Rokeby Developments and managed by Business Durham, the ten industrial units at Station Place in Newton Aycliffe are designed to support new and expanding businesses.

In this “new normal” era, many organisations are trying to learn from the past and do things differently.  This is true of Business Durham’s Future Business Magnates (FBM) competition.  FBM has taken online learning materials from the last couple of years, when the competition took place virtually and brought them within the scope of physical events held this year.  School children who entered this year’s competition were able to use Business Durham’s online learning materials to help them create, develop and present their ideas for solutions to current commercial challenges – backed by assistance from experienced mentors and entrepreneurs.  This highlights the benefits of combining traditional face-to-face interaction with the virtual experience that so many of us had during the pandemic.

Throughout 2022 the Business Durham team got out and about again, visiting local offices and factories to discover the challenges companies have been facing, and help with connections to support they need to overcome them.  In the last twelve months, the organisation’s business engagement team has met with companies of all sizes across County Durham.

To achieve their growth goals, businesses need access to appropriate finance to invest and develop.  Business Durham-managed funding programmes have benefited dozens of companies this year.  They include the County Durham Growth Fund, a £8.9m capital grant scheme designed to accelerate the expansion of SMEs, which has awarded £1.2 million to 11 companies over the year and the Finance Durham Fund, which has invested more than £10m in 21 companies since it was launched in 2017.

As well as providing opportunities for businesses to access funding, Business Durham offers ongoing support that takes many forms.  The DABS programme has continued to provide fledgling companies with the chance to grow their venture through expert-led workshops, group sessions, monthly networking events, one-to-one support and mentoring.  Meanwhile, the Durham City Incubator (DCI) accelerator programme works with early-stage companies, enabling their founders to test their business model or concept, learn new skills and tactical techniques, and connect to the wider business ecosystem via boot camps, one-to-one mentoring support, workshops, seminars and networking events.

Business Durham are always looking for opportunities to connect businesses with universities, colleges, technology organisations and other education and training providers to enhance skills provision across County Durham.  During 2022 the Business Engagement team worked with the Institute of Technology (IoT) and New College Durham to deliver skills workshops aimed at helping businesses prepare for skills and recruitment challenges

Other companies have taken advantage of the Durham Business Opportunities Programme (DBOP) which, since its launch in 2020, has helped hundreds of businesses by identifying and helping them to access potential market opportunities, connecting them to business support initiatives, and by meeting gaps in the business support offer.  The DBOP Routes to Contract Success programme built on the original programme’s success and provided support to over 70 companies through face-to-face workshops, meet the buyer and other supplier engagement events, hands-on one-to-one advice, help and practical consultancy in the form of complete bid writing services.

The uncertainty of the pandemic has heaped more pressure on business owners and entrepreneurs, many of whom have benefited from a Durham Business Recovery Grant to adapt their business model, launch a new revenue stream, tackle unforeseen challenges and develop new ways of working.

Overseen by Business Durham, the £6 million grant scheme provided financial assistance for the implementation of business recovery plans, helping firms that had a credible plan to adapt and recover but didn’t have the necessary financial clout to be able to implement it.  The scheme provided grants from £1,000 up to a maximum of £40,000 and contributed 75% towards eligible recovery plan costs, with the business expected to meet a quarter of the project cost.

One beneficiary of the grant is Tridonic (UK), a global provider of smart and efficient lighting solutions. The Spennymoor-based company secured £30,000 of funding to invest in a new software package – or “digital twin” – to make its manufacturing processes more efficient.

Tridonic makes around four million printed circuit boards that are used in a variety of lighting applications – including emergency escape lighting, street lights and in football stadia – but was forced to re-evaluate its business processes during the challenges of the pandemic and the catch-up afterwards.

Ben Kennard, Manufacturing and Supply Chain Manager at Tridonic, says: “Previously our product changeover time – the time taken for our machines to switch from making one product to another – was running at an average of nine minutes. We wanted to find ways of reducing the changeover time and therefore cutting the amount of time that our machines weren’t running.

“We created a 3-D simulation of our factory and inputted all of our orders for the next six weeks into the software. It automatically identified the optimum build sequence for each product and the results were impressive.

“Due to our digital twin’s assistance, we’ve reduced machine downtime by almost 40%, which inevitably helps our bottom line, and has enabled us to fulfil orders quicker for the customer.

“We wouldn’t have been able to invest in this software without the recovery grant. This was new software with a high risk to the business as there was limited knowledge of it. However, we spent some of the grant on training staff so they were comfortable using the software, and over the next few years we’ll invest more time and energy to get more out of it. This digital twin has the potential to do so much more to make our business even more efficient.

“Business Durham has provided excellent support, and not just in helping us to access the grant. They’ve also assisted our workforce development plans by identifying training opportunities with local providers who we didn’t even know were on our doorstep. Now we’ve been able to hire two apprentices as a result of Business Durham’s help.

“It has been a testing couple of years due to the pandemic and this support has been invaluable. Going forwards, we intend to invest further in technology and skills to strengthen our position in this competitive marketplace.”

As we enter 2023, there is renewed optimism among the business community, despite the inevitable challenges that lie ahead.

Sarah Slaven, Managing Director of Business Durham, says: “Last year businesses saw a return to a new normal as concerns surrounding COVID-19 gradually subsided. There was good engagement within the business community as companies met up again to network and share ideas.

Economic conditions are still challenging – global supply chain issues and the cost of living crisis show no sign of abating in the short term – but despite this, businesses are grasping opportunities with a positive, can-do attitude.

“This year there is likely to be much more focus on the issue of sustainability. This is partly because businesses are looking to reduce their energy bills, but also because they want to create a greener economy and play their part in helping to tackle the climate crisis.”

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