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Growth planning: essential steps for SMEs

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 22 May 2024

Successful SME growth planning involves critical appraisal, goal setting, budgeting, adaptability, and strategic partnerships. Read on to discover how to apply these strategies.

Damon Brain, CEO of accounting and business advisers Duncan & Toplis, has 27 years’ experience supporting SME client growth.

In today’s challenging business landscape, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are increasingly seeking avenues to accelerate expansion. However, embarking on this journey requires careful planning, strategic foresight, and the ability to adapt to changing market dynamics.

Brain emphasises the importance of critical appraisal as the foundation for growth strategies. Understanding your existing operations, identifying competitive advantages, and pinpointing client pain points are essential. “Setting clear goals and strategies, coupled with regular measurement against key performance indicators (KPIs), allows for adjustments and adaptations along the way,” he says.

Next comes budgeting and forecasting, which are the backbone of growth planning, facilitating intelligent resource allocation, risk management, and investment planning. Brain underscores the significance of scenario planning to navigate volatile market conditions effectively and with agility.

Brain has also spearheaded the company’s ambitious growth strategy. This included securing private investment to support its expansion across the Midlands through new offices, growing the size of its team to 500.

“In dynamic market environments, adaptability and flexibility are paramount. SMEs, with their lean structures, are well-positioned to experiment, innovate, and iterate quickly. This agility allows them to stay ahead of the curve and respond swiftly to changing market trends and client needs,” he adds.

However, SMEs have a tendency to adopt a biased approach to market research, says Brain, focusing solely on services rather than solutions. Additionally, the lack of continuous evaluation and adaptation of growth strategies can hinder progress. “Having a trusted adviser by your side to provide expertise and challenge assumptions is crucial, he adds.”

Being the trusted adviser

Andrew Coulson has been a trusted advisor for growing SMEs since he qualified as a chartered accountant in 1994. His experience spans from practice to industry. He now works as a fractional CFO at business building company My Finance Team.

When it comes to growth planning, Coulson notes that the “fundamental principles of financial control reign supreme”. He also stresses how crucial it is to really know a business inside and out. “First and foremost, you need to understand what the business and its owners are trying to achieve, what’s the endgame.”

This comprehension is not limited to financials but extends to operational intricacies, market dynamics, and strategic objectives. By grasping the holistic picture, advisers can chart a path aligned with the client’s vision.

Then accountants need to assess where the business and their goals fit into the bigger picture of the economy. Reflecting on the current economic climate, Coulson emphasises the significance of industry-specific challenges and opportunities. 

“While we’re in a very challenging economic climate at the moment, not every sector has been affected in the same way,” he states, advocating for a nuanced approach, recognising that different sectors face unique dynamics. Whether navigating through tough times or capitalising on growth opportunities, strategic investments and adaptation are key.

Regional vs. international growth

From charting growth plans to expansion overseas, Vineta Bajaj, CFO of European grocery delivery business Rohlik Group and an ACA chartered accountant, explains the progress from managing a business regionally to introducing operations to a new country. 

“First, when growing regionally, there’s likely already basics established such as supply chain relationships and contracts, brand recognition, an understanding of the market (and consumer preferences) as well as understanding of the complexities of regulation, both accounting and legal,” says Bajaj.

From there, it’s starting to find a balance of international and local knowledge. Starting in a new country (even as a well-known brand) is like having a start-up all over again, she adds. “Strategies I’ve used are deploying key employees from existing countries to set up a new geography with a playbook. This way, SMEs can focus on ensuring that group and corporate practices are followed and adhered to, while optimising for localisation where required.”

The one piece of growth planning advice which all three experts mention is knowing what the client wants first. “Working closely with clients to understand their international expansion plans can help accounting firms think about their global footprint more tactically and profitably,” explains Bajaj.

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