Belfast Telegraph

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Nick McCafferty, regional sales manager of Bibby Financial Services, believes that the company has a key role to play in helping small firms

Tell us about your business.

Bibby Financial Services (BFS) in Northern Ireland is all about supporting local small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), giving them the opportunity to develop and grow, safe in the knowledge that they have the security of adequate cash flow to allow them to do so.

We are part of a worldwide BFS network who are helping local business to thrive and trade whether their customers are based in Armagh, Belfast, Paris, Perth or Hong Kong.

What is your unique selling point?

As a leading invoice finance provider, funding from BFS is based on sales rather than past performance.

This in turn means that the cash we make available to our clients grows in line with their businesses. At a time when traditional lending institutions are restricting credit facilities to Northern Ireland SMEs, we are providing businesses with funding vital to survival and growth. BFS has a dedicated fund specifically for Northern Ireland businesses seeking flexible finance solutions whether for domestic or overseas activity.

Who are your customers?

Our client base ranges from new start sole traders to limited companies turning over up to £15m and who sell business to business on credit.

As well as funding normal trading companies, we provide working capital facilities for management buy-outs, management buy-ins and businesses going through corporate restructuring.

What have been the biggest challenges for your business over the last year?

Although improving, awareness levels of the alternative funding options available to Northern Ireland's SME continues to be low.

In fact, recent research has revealed that Northern Ireland business owners are currently the least likely to apply for credit across the UK for fear of rejection from traditional institutions, resulting in a general consensus that credit isn't available from anywhere.

However, BFS are continuing to make gains year on year, with more and more SMEs opting for invoice finance than ever before.

Across the UK, our client number market share has risen to 18.4% in 2011, up from 16.3% in 2010 - full market share stats are not yet available for 2011, but in 2010, our nearest independent invoice finance competitor had just 3.6% market share. On a global level BFS has witnessed a 14% increase in client numbers in 2011.

Where do you see the opportunities for your business in the year ahead?

In the current environment, where lending to Northern Ireland businesses from traditional lenders is at an all-time low, we will continue to differentiate ourselves through the flexible funding we offer.

We are very much open for business and have the funds and appetite to fund and support Northern Ireland business activity, whether domestically or in exporting, in existing companies or new start-ups. We offer funding without the restrictive lending conditions that other finance providers are known to apply and as we build on awareness of this amongst Northern Ireland SMEs in 2011, we anticipate further uplifts in its use.

How can Northern Ireland's economy improve?

Exporting has a key role to play in the recovery of the Northern Ireland economy. However, despite the Northern Ireland Executive's objective to increase exports by 15% by 2015 the reality is that this will not be achieved without the implementation of practical support for SMEs.

Whether it's identifying new markets or experiencing difficulties with the reality of doing business abroad - issues such as overseas late payment, currency difficulties and access to funding often result in businesses shying away from export - SMEs need practical support if Northern Ireland is to really make a difference to our export figure and companies such as BFS can assist with this. If ever Northern Ireland needed Northern Ireland plc to work it is now.

Not through arguing, claims and counter-claims about who is lending and who is not, but through practical support offering working capital to allow the backbone of the Northern Ireland economy; the local SME population, to grow and thrive.

Remember the mantra of old: "Come on Northern Ireland, come on. There's a whole lot of work to be done"? Well now is the time to do that work.

Should the Executive do more to help local business?

I feel the Executive are working hard to support local business, but they alone can't solve the issues facing our SMEs.

Business leaders, those in influence and other key agencies have a responsibility to the economy to build awareness of the options that are open to our business owners, because the reality is that traditional lenders are still not willing to make credit available to them.

We are living in changing times and everyone in business must look for new solutions to new problems.

The business world has changed and lenders, funders, in fact everyone involved in business needs to react and collaborate.

Northern Ireland's SMEs, and in turn the economy, will be the real winners.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

Go for it, be brave, and consider all the funding options open to you.

Turning dreams into reality needs cash, both in the set-up of the business, and in its future growth.

Based on sales rather than past performance and with straight-forward funding criteria in place, invoice finance is an ideal option for new start businesses, and the cash available to them will grow in line with their sales growth.

It is a flexible form of funding with the added benefit of offering businesses a comprehensive credit management facility, along with the option of protection against customer bad debt.

Bibby Financial Services is the sponsor of Young Businessperson of the Year at Belfast Telegraph Business Awards in association with British Midland International