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The dawn of the disrupters

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The dust is settling after this year’s Growing Business Awards, and lessons are emerging.

Fourteen years after we at Real Business launched the awards with the CBI, the “class of 2012” are as strong as any in GBA history. At a time of continuing economic squeeze, this year’s awards have identified a raft of high-quality mid-sized and smaller UK firms that appear unfazed by, indeed are thriving in, the new economic order. What’s going on?

Between them, the 50 companies shortlisted for the Growing Business Awards, held in association with Lloyds Bank, employ more than 10,000 people. The six companies shortlisted for “Company of the Year – mid-sized” alone have combined sales of £120.5m; a combined ebitda of £28.3m; employ 1,400 people (including seasonal workers); and, collectively, do business in some 183 countries.

Profitable, growing, international… if you could distil a new-look UK economy into a group of businesses, it would look like Brainjuicer, Cupid, Tracsis, Gritit, UKFast and Brand Learning!

So what’s behind this apparent mismatch between a sluggish economy and a high-growth heartland segment? One answer is: management independence. Talking to many of these business owners and entrepreneurs at the Growing Business Awards judging day, I was struck by how close they stay to their business and its market. They can immediately sense shifting consumer trends and, given that many have operational independence, they can react quickly and put their business in position to take advantage. They are ahead of, not behind, their markets.

Take Colin Stevens, founder of Better Bathrooms and this year’s “Entrepreneur of the Year” (pictured, centre, with Mark Miles of Lloyds Private Banking and Olympic legend Steve Cram). A wannabe golf professional, Stevens spotted that the old bathroom retail model (high-street locations, reliant on high levels of stock) could be transformed by the application of digital technology. In double-quick time, he’s snapped up three per cent of a still-strong market. Incumbent industry players simply weren’t able to move so fast and decisively. Today, Colin’s’ company is racking up profits of £5m and employs 140 people. The judges said that he has been “a real disrupter, making a massive impact in a tough sector.”

“He realised the potential of the internet, saw the failings of his competitors and moved faster than the incumbents. It’s a business with significant potential for growth.

Across the Growing Business Awards candidates, you see similar forces at work: John Kearon, founder of Brainjuicer, strongly believed that market research could be improved, so he created a business built around a new logic. Octavius Black, CEO of Mind Gym, applied a similar challenger’s spirit to the world of management consultancy. Bruce Bratley saw the deficiencies of the recycling sector, and so created First Mile (this year’s “Innovator of the Year”). The team behind Opus Energy wanted to shake up the Big Six energy giants. And so it goes on…

Armed with their fresh, digitally led, fleet-of-foot businesses, this new challenger generation seems determined to mine the world’s fast-growing markets. Again and again, we heard talk among candidates of opportunities in China, the US, Brazil, Thailand…

The evidence of the 2012 Growing Business Awards, held in association with Lloyds Bank, is that truly seismic change is taking place in the UK economy – led by its disruptive mid-sized and smaller, growth companies.

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