Business & Your Money: Small Businesses Are Making a Big Impact; Northern Ireland's Own Economic Summit Takes Place on October 5th at Galgorm Manor, Ballymena. One of This Year's Headline Speakers, Ledu Chief Executive Chris Buckland Tells ADRIENNE McGILL That despite the Challenges Facing Small Businesses, the Sector Continues to Power Ahead

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WHEN Ledu chief executive Chris Buckland addresses leading figures in the public and private sector at this year's Northern Ireland Economic conference, he'll share with them some of the successes which the small business sector has enjoyed over the past year.

The highlights which will feature in Ledu's latest annual report, published next month include a 6 per cent increase in external sales by Ledu client companies, achieved despite the difficulties of the euro and strength of sterling. Job creation is also up. Employment in Ledu's growing businesses has increased by over 1300 additional new jobs.

But while heralding the successes, Chris Buckland is under no illusion that challenges can still shift the balance.

"We are two years into our current corporate plan. There is good news but also some important challenges. There are two main areas we have to focus on - the enterprise gap and small business competitiveness.

"Just how well are our small businesses responding to the changes in the market place and how well are they actually growing?

"We have been meeting our targets for getting businesses started. However we are sitting at around 30 start ups per 10,000 of the population while the UK average is approximately 40.

"One of our challenges is that we want to get into the UK average.

"That is going to require us to ramp up the level of start ups significantly. We have been meeting the shorter term targets but the longer term ones still have to be shifted. It's a matter of looking at how to energise all the agents of small business support to achieve that.''

"Business growth is good - the companies in our top 100 list are performing very well.

"If you take the best of small companies they are growing fast in markets outside Northern Ireland - that is very important.

" What is interesting about the top 100 is that the average age is under 15 years. You have companies performing well in a range of traditional sectors as well as new sectors.''

However, while the Northern Ireland economy may have its own dilemmas, the burgeoning economy of the Republic of Ireland has provided rich pickings for small local companies, particularly in the construction industry.

"The strength of the Celtic Tiger has benefited small companies in Northern Ireland,'' says Chris Buckland.

"Despite the strength of the pound there has been very good growth in the ROI and companies in the construction related industries have performed very strongly.

"Small business has a tremendous ability to regenerate and support economic vibrancy. Crucially we need to be building on the strengths of our indigenous businesses.''

A growing awareness of the benefits of ecommerce and acceleration in the growth of IT businesses has also contributed to success in the small business sector.

"We have really pushed the boat out in terms of getting ecommerce much better appreciated and companies are beginning to exploit it. I am very optimistic about the benefits of that.''

The growth of the small business sector has also taken place against the backdrop of major changes on Northern Ireland's political skyline.

With the establishment of the devolved administration, there is now localised economic decision making for the first time and joined up government. …