Sales & Marketing

27 ways to get your MP behind your business

21 min read

28 October 2007

Politicians can be a slippery bunch. Whether you choose to grease their palms or use a bit of old-fashioned diplomacy, here's 27 ways to get your MP working for your business.

1. Find the diamond in the rough

Harry Clarke, founder of Cobalt Technologies, has found politicians a useless resource. “They’re not really interested in helping SMEs,” says Clarke. “As a shining exception to that rule I am, however, grateful to Sir George Young, my constituency MP.

“Back in March 2006 he accepted an invitation to open an extension to our offices here in Basingstoke. He cut a ribbon, drank some fizz, posed for photos, chatted to our employees, and stayed for the ideal 30 minutes before making an elegant retreat.

“He even volunteered to put the photos of the event on his website – enabling us to achieve a high Google ranking through association.”

What, then, is the secret? Be lucky enough to have an MP who cares about their constituency for what it is, not merely as a means to his or her end.

2 Be a bit cheeky

Dale Vince, founder of Ecotricity, put an ad in the Guardian earlier this year addressed to Gordon Brown. It read: “We’ve needed a change in power for a very long time. A change in power from carbon to renewable. Today I’d like to take Gordon at his word and engage him in an open debate on energy, environment and community.”

Did name-checking the new PM cause a lot of publicity?

“Absolutely,” says Vince, whose £18m-turnover green electricity company saw profits of £1.3m last year. “It was a timely ad, appearing on his first day as PM. We felt it was an opportunity to spark debate.”

3. Party hard at parliament

If you want to host an event at parliament, you have to get an official ‘invite’ from an MP. They only allow a limited number of guest events a year, so if you want to raise a toast in the Commons, you’ll have to pull a few strings.

The Forum of Executive Recruiters (FER) hosts its annual Christmas dinner at the House of Commons. “Charles Walker is our man,” says Uzair Bawany, FER member and MD of £16m-turnover company Contact Recruitment. “He’s the MP for Broxbourne, but he’s also heavily involved in the recruitment industry.”

4. Break through the barrier to entry

Regenatec manufactures and installs widgets that allow vehicles to run on pure plant oil. Tapping into the public transport sector would be a major win for founder Mike Lawton, but he was scuppered by some outdated legislation that makes bus operators pay a premium for green energy.

Lawton contacted Ed Vaizey, shadow culture minister, to ask him to raise the question in parliament. Vaizey obliged and the issue was picked up by the Chambers of Commerce. “There’s a huge amount riding on it for us,” says Lawton.

5. Promotional videos

“Deal With It”, the behavioural therapy programme run by Cheshire-based SOG, received endorsement from Steve Norris, then minister for transport, in 2004.

As former chairman of Jarvis, which had been embroiled in controversy following the Potters Bar rail crash, Norris had a vested interest in promoting safety issues. “The BBC was featuring our programme on Working Lunch and we needed someone to introduce the footage,” says SOG director Alan Houghton.

“Norris was happy to be involved, for free. The DVD now forms the bulk of our brochure to prospective clients, and revenues from “Deal With It” have just hit £750,000.”

Image source

6. Grease their palms

“We’ve written to current government on numerous occasions with very little success,” says Contact Recruitment’s Bawany. “But when we sponsored an opposition party’s event recently, I had some face-to-face time with the leader to discuss the issues facing the recruitment industry and talk about the what changes he plans to make in employment legislation.

We spent a few thousand pounds putting on the event, but it’s an investment. There’s a lot of value in talking to the parties that aren’t yet in power, but are strong opponents.”

7. Get out your little black book

“One of our directors was an adviser to President Mandela back in the early 90s,” recalls Rory Stear, chairman of the £24m-turnover company Freeplay Foundation. “So when we were opening a factory in South Africa in1995, we asked Mandela to attend and show his support.”

It helped that the factory was entirely staffed by rehabilitating criminals: “As a fellow detainee, though not exactly a criminal, he was very willing to show his support for the venture and we received a lot of media coverage as a result.”

8. A bit of diplomacy

Michael Wilks, CEO of Scyron, opened the firm’s first overseas office inFrance this September. The event was held at the British embassy, with ambassador Sir Peter Westmacott on hand to add a bit of sparkle.

“The launch didn’t cost a fantastic amount of money – less than £10,000 – and it attracted more than 100 guests,” says Wilks. “We’re a small company – 20 employees and turning over £1.5m – but we had a very successful launch in this new country.”

9. Join the club

Wilfred Emmanuel Jones, founder of The Black Farmer brand, bemoans the lack of business nous in parliament. “SMEs are woefully under-represented. There are no high-profile MPs who have a strong track record in business. Most are career politicians, cocooned from the real world.”

Nevertheless, despite a skills shortage in this area, the Conservative Party Forum can be fertile ground for entrepreneurs.

“It’s a useful club to join if you want to meet influential people and listen to entrepreneurs,” says Jones. “But beware: politicians really want you there so they can try to get your money to fund their campaigns.”

10. Take advantage of government subsidies

Graham Whitworth is the CEO of FireAngel, a smoke alarm manufacturer. The government sponsors a fire safety initiative, which pays for various UK fire brigades to supply and install smoke alarms, free of charge. “They don’t stock our products exclusively,” says Whitworth. “But when the counties of Staffordshire and West Yorkshire switched over to FireAngel products from a competitor, annual revenues increased by more than £1m.”

11. Spread the good news

“We’re the success story in our area,” says Andrew Tasker, MD of East Kilbride-based Mentholatum. “While all the other major employers in the area are shutting up shop, we’re tripling production.”

Tasker contacted his local MSP Andy Kerr and Adam Ingram MP to tell them the good news. “It was common sense to let them know how we’re doing,” says Tasker. “To double our £30m turnover, we have to expand the factory, which involves applying forplanning permission from the local council. Now that they are aware that we’re fuelling the local economy, they can help facilitate the process.”

12. Passive stroking

It takes time to nurture relationships with politicos. “You can’t force them to help you,” says Peter Girling, founder of Taunton-based Girlings Retirement Options.

“All you can do is feed information into the system. Every time a politician publishes something to do with a cause relevant to us, I write to them. I was quite successful getting through to John Prescott’s office, and I even had a few meetings with the civil servants about my business.” But the process is yet to bear fruit.

“I’m just going to have to keep banging the drum,” says Girling.

13. It’s all about timing

If you actually manage to acquire some political support, you’ll want to eke it out as long as possible. Michael Wilks, Scyron CEO, used impeccable timing to get the most out of his firm’s Paris launch at the British embassy. “We had our launch three weeks before a major trade show we were attending in Paris and invited everyone we’d met at the embassy. We had a great response and left the trade show with potentially several million euros worth of business.”

14. Friends in high places

When the Freeplay Foundation sent 10,000 radios to Kenya, the government demanded $100,000 worth of import duty – despite the fact the radios were a charity donation.

Luckily, Baroness Chalker, former minister for overseas development, was on the Freeplay board. “She got in touch with her various contacts from her time in the Conservative Party and convinced them to waive the charge,” says Freeplay’s Rory Stear.

15. Big in business and big in politics

If you can find a politician with a background in your industry, they are more likely to understand your business and want to help.

Girlings Retirement Options provides assured tenancy property for the elderly, andfounder Peter Girling recently found his champion in Baroness Sally Greengross.

“She is chairwoman of the International Longevity Centre and she used to be the CEO of Age Concern. She came and opened our latest development near Weston-super-Mare,” says Girling. “Her word carries a lot of clout. She spoke to residents and assembled an audience including the local MP, mayor and chairman of Somerset county council, enthusing about what we’re doing.” 

16. Free advertising

“The government sponsors fire safety week every year, with campaigns running in print, radio and television,” says Whitworth, CEO of Coventry-based FireAngel. “We always see a dramatic uplift in sales during that week, usually between 200 and 300 per cent.”

17. Bring out the big guns

In September, John Hutton and Stephen Timms travelled around the country, meeting top entrepreneurs to pick their brains about what government can do to help small businesses.

Described as a “nothing off-limits” review of government policy, the likes of Karan Bilimoria, Saul Klein and Jonathan Straight have all had their tuppence-worth.

The aim? To find out where public policy is supportive of small business and where it’s not, and ultimately draft new legislation to lighten the load for SMEs. 

18. Safety in numbers

Sometimes it helps to consort with the enemy. In Michael Wilks’s previous incarnation as a public affairs director for Symbol Technologies, he had to swallow his pride and join up with his competitors to bring in the business.

“We were trying to win a security and surveillance contract with the European Union,” says Wilks. “Rather than promote our own company, we joined a consortium of businesses, taking our technology to organisations such as Interpol as part of the package. It was much easier for the politicians to support a number of companies rather than just one.”

19. Join a forum

Dawn Gibbins, founder of Flowcrete, a £36m-turnover floor manufacturer, is the national representative for SMEs in the Manufacturing Forum.

Previous chairs include Jackie Smith MP and Alun Michael MP, with Stephen Timms MP currently in situ. Gibbins applauds their dedication to the industry: “The ministers always put forward proposals for extra funding of the Manufacturing Advisory Service to the treasury.”

20. It’s all about trust

When DEFRA approached Mike Lawton, founder of Regenatec, to convert a fishing boat so that it could run on biofuel as a world-first, he was over the moon. “Everyone’s heard of DEFRA. To engage with them gave us a huge leap in credibility.”

Regenatec completed the £500,000 project in 2004 and the boat is currently sailing the North Sea. “A ship is not like a car or a train. If it stops working, it sinks. That DEFRA trusted our technology with such a high-risk craft shows the public how reliable our conversion process is.”

21. Championing causes

“I’ve been trying to get supermarkets to stock more local produce for years. It’s an issue close to my heart,” says Wilfred Emmanuel Jones, founder of The Black Farmer brand. Jones contacted James Paice, shadow minister for agriculture, and told him about the plight of British farmers.

In a speech at the Tory Party conference in October, Paice said: “Buying local food can be cheaper and of better quality, so we will ensure that British taxpayers’ money is spent on British food wherever possible.” Music to Jones’s ears.

22. Grant granted

When Kevin Smith, director of Cyden, the Swansea-based cosmetic laser manufacturer, organised a photo shoot with Andrew Davis, minister for economic development in Wales, he thought the benefits would end with local coverage.

“We took some photos of him next to our machines, hoping our profile within the business community would be raised,” says Smith.

The £3m-turnover firm was seeking funding at this time and had applied for alocal grant.

“The Welsh Regional Selective Assistance Grant is awarded not by the RDA but by the Welsh Assembly. The press coverage of us engaging with the minister may have influenced the speed with which the grant was awarded to us. We received £300,000.”

23. Avoid politicians in the US

“People in the US have a very low opinion of politicians,” says Freeplay Foundation chairman Rory Stear. “They are seriously unpopular as individuals. We chose Tom Hanks as our US ambassador instead. We approached him after he went on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and raved about our wind-up radios after filming Castaway.”

It was unsolicited publicity, and when the Foundation approached Hanks about a more formal arrangement, he was happy to be involved. A great coup for Freeplay.

“He was voted the most believable and plausible American by the US media,” says Stear. “People listen to what Tom Hanks says long before they’ll believe George Bush. And so they should.”

24. Take the initiative

FireAngel is one of the founding members of the “Wake Up” scheme, which raises awareness of carbon monoxide poisoning.

It’s a worthy cause but also a canny business move: “We are the sole manufacturer involved,” says MD Graham Whitworth. “So it’s fantastic exposure.”

An event was held at the House of Lords in October, attended by Annette Brooke, MP for the Liberal Democrats, and a host of media correspondents, including Dr RosemaryLeonard, Louise Rainer and Lorraine Kelly. “Our carbon monoxide detectorsare going to be featured on BBC Breakfast News as a result.”

25. Charity begins at home

Barry Sheerman, MP for Huddersfield, has a hands-on approach to fostering small business in his constituency. He founded the Enterprise Foundation with local businessmen Ian Pogson and Bill Macbeth.

The Foundation allocates funding from the Learning Skills Council and the European Social Fund to start-ups looking for support in the early days.

“It’s a bit like Dragons’ Den, except that we have no private interest in the companies,” says Pogson. “We’ve had 53 entrepreneurs come to us so far, and 38 of those havesuccessfully launched businesses following our sponsored workshops. Some ofus “Dragons” even mentor the entrepreneurs until they find their feet.” 

26. A nod from the PM can be a launchpad for business

When Tony Blair visited the Heath Business and Science Park, he saw the potential for the business model to be rolled out across the UK and said as much in his address: “What has been achieved at the Heath is quite remarkable and should be replicated across the UK.”

John Lewis, director at the Heath, took the PM at his word, launching “Project Fusion”, an independent consultancy for regeneration. A move that will “bringsubstantial rewards”, says Lewis.

27. Make them bring in the business

“We secured all our major clients as a direct consequence of having our local MP, Jamie Reed, open our new offices in Cumbria,” says Roger Turner, MD of £30m-turnover IT firm Capula.

“We specialise in nuclear power and utilities. The big players in the industry, such as the NDA, International Nuclear Solutions and BNG, all came along, purely because we had the MP there and nuclear power is such a contentious issue.”

It wasn’t even a struggle getting Reed to come along: “He was more than willing to support new business in Cumbria.”