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How Johnston Carmichael is helping the Scottish economy bounceback

Johnston Carmichael, Scotland’s largest independent business advisory and accountancy firm, recently partnered with the University of Stirling Management School to deliver the UK Government’s new ‘Help To Grow’ scheme to support UK SMEs develop growth strategies and improve performance. Accountancy Today spoke with Alistair Black, head of consulting at Johnston Carmichael, to discuss the partnership.

What inspired Johnston Carmichael to partner with the University of Stirling?

Our involvement in the programme is driven by a close professional relationship that Johnson Carmichael has with the University of Stirling Management School; our chairman, Sandy Manson, sits on their business advisory board. Additionally, Stirling Management School recognised that the mentoring aspect of the programme would have greater impact if delivered by an industry partner. Part of what we do as a firm is provide a wide range of business advice, and when we looked at what the programme objectives were, we realised what an important role this could play in helping the SME community in Scotland, who represent the core of our firm’s client base, recover from the Covid crisis.

How will the partnership benefit businesses, as well as the firm itself?

The programme is aimed at supporting leaders and decision makers amongst ambitious SMEs across the UK to boost their business’ performance, resilience and long-term growth. The partnership will blend the academic expertise of Stirling Management School’s faculty with the real-world experience of the Johnston Carmichael team. 

A key output from the programme is the development of a Growth Action Plan for their business. Our mentoring role is to understand the challenges that the participants are facing and help them to evaluate the knowledge delivered through the programme and identify how best to apply this within the context of their own Growth Action Plan. The Johnston Carmichael mentors are all senior people from within the firm who have extensive and wide-ranging business experience, and the involvement with the Help to Grow programme is an excellent way for them to further develop their mentoring and advisory skills.

What is included in the curriculum?

The contents of the modules and the curriculum was developed by HM Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It’s a very wide-ranging curriculum and touches on most of the key management challenges that SME leaders are faced with, including strategy and innovation, digital adoption, building a brand, internationalisation, organisational design, leading change, financial management and operational efficiency. 

The programme is being championed by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who recognises if we are to speed up the recovery from the Covid emergency and close the productivity gap between the UK and some of our Western European economic peers, this needs to be addressed at a grassroots level.

What improvements will SMEs see in their business following the completion of the Help to Grow scheme?

The main output from the programme is a ‘growth action plan’, so the programme has a series of modules which teach a specific aspect of business management – there’s facilitated case studies that participants are taking, and then there’s the mentoring part that we do. But the main purpose of all this isn’t just to appoint the participants with the knowledge, it’s to help them develop a growth action plan tailored specifically for their business, addressing new challenges and the opportunities that they see within the organisation.

The growth action plan is to help SMEs identify what the priorities are in their business, and to drive the plan based on what will have the greatest impact on their business. The improvements they see will be driven by their ability to implement that growth action plan.

What inspired Johnston Carmichael to provide one-to-one mentoring over the course of the programme?

BEIS identified that enhancing the knowledge amongst SME business leaders through an academic programme was one thing, but what really helps them to digest, understand, and implement some of the topics in their own business is the ability to talk with experienced business people in an open and supportive environment. We are deeply embedded with the SME community in Scotland, so I’d like to think that’s something that we should absolutely be there to provide. 

Will the firm see any benefits to this?

Absolutely. SMEs are the lifeblood of the Scottish economy, so helping them to boost performance and close that productivity gap can only bode well for the Scottish economy. But it’s also a great development opportunity for our people. A lot of the senior people in our business are very experienced at providing business advice, and working closely with SME leaders in a mentoring capacity allows them to enhance their own skills and apply their own knowledge of business performance.

What is next for the firm?

In terms of the Help to Grow: Management programme, this is a three-year programme and we have signed up with Stirling Management School for the duration of the programme. The hope is that, over that period of time, we will engage with and support hundreds of Scottish SME businesses.

As far as Johnston Carmichael is concerned, we see the advisory part of our business as an increasingly important element of our business. I think if we can help our people develop their business advisory skills, that can only enhance the service that we offer and bring new opportunities to the firm.

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