Small business in America is taken seriously

TENBY POWELL
Last updated 15:40 11/10/2012
The White House
Getty Images
POOR COMPARISON: The President of the United States supports small business, while in New Zealand there is little support for or understanding of SMEs.

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OPINION: The American I was having breakfast with at the Marriott Hotel in Berlingame, directly opposite San Francisco International Airport, pointed over my shoulder and said: "Look - Air Force One taxiing onto the runway".   

And there it was, the aging Boeing 747, lumbering out to lift the world's most powerful man into the Californian skies. We watched as it taxied past the three passenger jets ahead of it and, without the usual waiting at the end of the runway, turned and started rolling in one continuous motion. The President of the United States of America, it seems, has take-off priority.

Another of his priorities is small business. Under Obama, SMEs have received significant support including the active and engaged leadership of Senator Mary Landrieu, Chair of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. 

This was my first thought as I laid eyes on Air Force One for the first time. That may seem a little strange but it's because I constantly anguish over the lack of support for SMEs in our country.  

Is it that we really don't care about the economic growth of our "engine room" and the opportunity that growing SMEs, particularly the medium-sized ones, represent? Which, just to be clear, is huge.

The thought only lasted a second because I was meeting a new acquaintance; potentially a new colleague, who had flown from San Diego to San Francisco to meet with me at short notice.  

Steve, an ex-US Special Forces, has a start-up similar to ours in the maritime security sector. We were meeting to discuss a potential collaboration. 

Two small businesses, operating a long way from both our homes in the Middle East, and both global from day one. Steve hadn't heard that term before and beamed - and used it three more times during breakfast. I felt like a schmuck, as the Americans say.  

Still, he does know what it means - and so do I. Both our fledging companies had to do exactly this in offering services to protect ships in the world's high risk zones.  

What captured my undivided attention was the support his new company was getting from the US Government. Like us, he had private investors who, on the basis of an idea (I mean a robust business plan that withstood the rigours of exacting and excruciating due diligence) had funded the start-up capital. Unlike us, they had considerable government support that went all the way to Congress.

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I found this intriguing and reflected on how I spent last Friday. I was billed to speak at the Small Business Summit in Auckland with Owen Glenn (billionaire and philanthropist), Julian Smith (MYOB boss), Declan Scott (She Chocolat) and Sharon Hunter (my wife, business partner and co-founder of PC Direct). We all talked about the growing pains of SMEs from our unique perspectives.    

Despite being constantly reminded that New Zealand must grow its export businesses, and notwithstanding that a number of the 150 owner/managers who attended the summit were indeed exporters, the Government was conspicuous by its absence.  

Shane Jones (Labour Party) and David Clendon (Green Party) did make the effort to attend and made valuable contributions. Both had previously managed business enterprises and seemed to read the pulse of the audience accurately - which, in simple terms, was beating with a chorus of "help us to help ourselves grow by making changes to the business environment".   

In essence, my new American friend and I have export businesses. We deploy, quite literally, the intellectual property of our country's most highly trained ex-servicemen and women (military and police) and, after lengthy induction programmes, provide the protection and security services for which we have been retained by major oil, gas and shipping corporations.

The bottom line for us both is that we need to be big. We can't compete as boutique operators and, ultimately, we will both need the support of our respective governments to grow in a range of overseas markets.   

The Government has an opportunity to better support SMEs through the creation of a growth environment and has a multitude of intelligent and practical business owners to support them.  

I hope they listen because Steve and I will both grow our companies, possibly as one enterprise, and on first blush, it could be American backing that enables small to become big. This would be despite our dream of creating a globally competitive Kiwi company through the growth of SMEs like my own.            

- Tenby Powell is an entrepreneur, builder of organisations, and the driving force behind the New Zealand SME Business Network. Join the SME network on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter at tenby.powell   

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