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Exclusive Interview Siwan Rees – NatWest Entrepreneur Accelerator

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The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted businesses across Wales. But how are these entrepreneurs and companies adapting and what will the longer-term bring?

Business News Wales spoke to Siwan Rees, Entrepreneurship Development Manager, at the NatWest Entrepreneur Accelerator, to find out.

How are businesses shifting the way that they work because of the pandemic?

“Businesses have reacted in a number of intelligent and purposeful ways. We’ve had a lot reach out to us at the NatWest Accelerator in Cardiff from all across Wales, wanting to affirm a strong commitment to the business community in Wales. We have such great relationships in Wales and support is never further than one call away.

“Across the board, business leaders have focused their attention on the well-being of their people. Once again, the people strategy of all businesses is one that leads in importance, whether that is leaning on staff to repurpose their normal skill set to help in different areas of need or changing their focus to provide minimal disruption to customers and stakeholders.

“Businesses have focused massively on making sure individuals, families, and communities are connected – something that we can mobilise relatively quickly in Wales which is a huge advantage. After this pandemic, remaining connected will forever be important.

“We’ve also seen a number of businesses completely pivot their offering as we have seen, while this time to think strategically about their position in the market and importantly their mindset. We encourage entrepreneurs to really focus on their mindset especially during these times.”

How will business behaviour change due to the pandemic?

“Businesses will place huge importance on a number of areas after this pandemic. There will be increased governance and due diligence placed on financial processes and viability . Being able to repay some of the funding that has been received during the crisis will be a consideration for businesses whilst they look to re-build and grow stronger than ever. Access to finance will also be important and understanding how businesses can have the confidence to take investment and funding to leap to the next level of their growth when conditions around them are less positive.

“There may also be a need to reaffirm confidence in accessing new markets. At the NatWest Accelerator, we focus heavily on helping entrepreneurs through introducing mentors to businesses that are looking for support and a “critical friend” when it comes to a business having an ambition to exploring new markets.

“Pre Covid-19, there were a number of businesses in Wales that had successfully entered into new markets. BrightAngle is a great example having put a great deal of effort into understanding how their business could expand abroad and accessing help from Welsh Government trade missions. We will need stories like this to keep confidence in how global markets are still open for business despite the difficulties many countries have faced.”

What impact is the pandemic going to have on the labour market and the business leaders within it?

“Access to skills and talent has always been a critical aspect to all businesses. We are fortunate that in Wales, the proximity of higher education to the business sectors means that skills and talent is more readily available and connected to the needs of businesses. Many businesses have benefited from the triadic relationship between academia, business and government to build the skills for the future. It may be that our recent experiences in terms of the key workers who have been fundamental to the fight against COVID-19 may shift the skills priorities and place a different lens on what we thought were the skills priorities of upmost importance.

“There may be further investment required in medi tech businesses and therefore the need to maintain the hard work to attract and build the right skills in tech will remain. However, in terms of our health and social care workforce, greater attention will be needed to ensure that the volumes of people necessary are being attracted and sustained to the profession. The pandemic has reaffirmed the importance and tireless work of the country’s professionals in the NHS and care sectors, which we are so grateful for.

“For business leaders and managers, having the ability to be an effective and conscious leader will be more important than ever. There is the age-old debate about whether leaders are born or developed. We need to hope that COVID-19 has inspired many individuals to lead and to be leaders of people with a conscious and purposeful agenda. Many businesses may need to build greater relationships with business coaches and training providers where their people can develop and be exposed to the leadership thinking that will equip them for the future ahead.

Ecosystems across Wales will at some point rely on procurement and supply chain activities, how will these processes evolve because of the pandemic?

“Many businesses will be having discussions with their suppliers right now, inevitably about costs, and they will also be assessing the value of their stakeholder relationships. Understanding procurement will be fundamental to all businesses as we enter recovery mode. In 2007, huge emphasis was given to exercises like supplier rationalisation and negotiations of terms and cost to help businesses that were struggling to save money and to rethink about areas where they could possibly get the same service for less.

“Today emphasis may well be placed on value and the relationship the buyer has with the stakeholder going forward and how they were served by them during the crisis. The public sector in Wales has always led the way in having a consortium purchasing function that can really stand up in times of challenge and exercise the relationships required to meet the demands of the organisations it serves. This takes consistence appraisal of the supply chain and its stakeholders within it, leaning on the data to provide evidence of efficiency.

“There is a shift towards “buying local” already and the public are also demonstrating this in their buying habits. For the retailers, this could be a positive message as we begin to come out of the lockdown as customers will not want to travel far nor risk the social distancing in supermarkets.”

Where do you see the Welsh Economy in the next five years?

“There is no doubt that the Welsh economy has been hit by the pandemic, however there has been great progress here in developing new businesses. Before the pandemic, the NatWest Accelerator had a record number of applications to join the accelerator programme in April and we are still supporting these businesses and entrepreneurs. The sheer volume of entrepreneurs and SMEs in Wales makes it even more important that they recover well from the economic impact of the virus. It may take a while but there will also be a need to make sure that they flourish and feel supported by the Welsh community.

“I anticipate that there will be a focus on manufacturing and bringing back some of the areas that we have needed during the pandemic. Our young people will also need support in trying to find their way in what may seem like a very different labour market post 2020. However, one thing is certain, we all need to support our economy. Make valued decisions on where we buy our food/clothes/essentials – supporting businesses that support communities and families. As Alison Rose, CEO of NatWest, has instilled in our culture at the bank, now is the time to be driven by purpose and supporting those around us. By doing so we can ensure the next five years and thereafter are full of hope and opportunity.”