By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Appointing an eight-member private sector committee to drive the Small and Medium-Sized Enterprise Development Bill forward has created “some light at the end of the tunnel”, a well-known consultant yesterday revealing that 75 per cent of his clients in the sector were “struggling”.
Mark Turnquest, of Mark A. Turnquest & Company, said that while the Government’s decision to appoint himself and seven other persons to the committee offered hope, many small businesses and entrepreneurs had adopted a ‘we’ll believe it when we say it’ attitude.
Acknowledging the continued weakness of many Bahamian-owned small and medium-sized (SME) enterprises, Mr Turnquest told Tribune Business he had been forced to cut the fees he charged for developing business plans by between 33-66 per cent.
And, while growth and optimism were unlikely in the short-term, Mr Turnquest said the Bill promised to usher in a “better business climate” for Bahamian SMEs by September 2013.
The legislation will create the Small and Medium-Sized Enterprise Development Agency (SMEDA) as a ‘one-stop shop’ to facilitate all the industry’s needs, and Mr Turnquest told this newspaper that it was being structured to resist the political fall-out from changes in government.
Disclosing that the Government had appointed the committee, featuring six men and two women, two weeks ago, Mr Turnquest said they were currently focused on assessing small business needs and consulting with those in the sector.
Pledging that the committee would consult with the various industry associations, plus small businesses in New Providence and the Family Islands, early next year, he told Tribune Business: “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“We can see that by next year the small business community will be in a far better position.... Right now, our country is not in a good position economically. A lot of times, people agree that small businesses are the driving force, but only recently are we making an effort to bring together the small business consultants in the field who can assist the Government.”
Apart from being hit by the recession, many Nassau-based small businesses have also had to contend with the disruption caused by the New Providence Road Improvement Project.
“I see a lot of businesses not open and people losing interest,” Mr Turnquest said. “I spoke to a lot of my customers about the Small and Medium-Seized Enterprise Development Act, but a lot of them are not in a position to recover because the financing mechanisms are not available right now.
“Lending institutions need to focus on new, high risk enterprises. That is one of the challenges right now. A lot of organisations have indicated they are going to lend money, but they are not practising what they preach.”
And he further told Tribune Business: “Of my clients, 75 per cent of them are struggling.
“All of them have under 10 people employed. That’s my market. Unfortunately, a lot of them have not yet started rehiring. Many of my clients had to go back to work in their shops; they have to work directly in the management of their companies and be there. They have not benefited from any recovery.
“Only 25 per cent of my clients have started hiring one or two people back again.”
Mr Turnquest said the struggles of the past four-five years had taken their toll on small business psychology, sapping the entrepreneurial spirit of many in the sector.
“I found out that their demeanour, enthusiastic behaviour, is not there,” he told Tribune Business of many clients.
“Presently, I’m doing a lot of planning and innovative-type marketing to see how I can attract new business myself. I, as a planner, have to do extra work to get my business back to where it is to survive.
“I went from a $750 fee for a business plan down to $500. New start-ups, I’m charging $250. My average price for a business plan is $250-=$500. No one has the means to pay more.”
Describing 2012 as “another year of drought”, Mr Turnquest added: “One of my clients has a pre-owned, used car business, and their sales are 30-40 per cent less than last year. That indicates people can afford less.
“Coming into the Christmas holidays, my clients are not optimistic at all. They don’t anticipate holiday sales will cover them for the major losses they’ve faced for the past year-and-a-half.
“I tell them that the Small Business Act and SMEDA will be hear next year. They’re not enthusiastic about that. While I told them it’s going to create a better business climate, they’re saying they’ve been suffering for too long, government has failed them for too long. They want to see it happen to believe it.”
Mr Turnquest said the committee would advise the Government on what was needed to create a “productive small business sector”, adding that the groundwork for the legislation and SMEDA’s structure was now taking place.
“Small business owners can feel confident now that by September next year they will have some type of facility where they will receive training, marketing and operational support,” he added.
SMEDA, Mr Turnquest said, would “identify the best funding mechanisms” for Bahamian small businesses, be that local or overseas sources.
This would also reduce the burden on the Bahamas Development Bank, government-sponsored venture capital fund and the Bahamas Agricultural and Industrial Corporation (BAIC).
The intention, Mr Turnquest said, was that all these agencies would have their own mandate, with SMEDA focused on small businesses.
Adding that the private sector would “drive” SMEDA, he said of its control: “Eventually there will be less government and more private sector..... The legal framework will go beyond political changes every five years.”
Pointing out that he would never have agreed to sit on the Government’s committee unless he was sure “something meaningful” would result, Mr Turnquest said: “We’ll make sure that when changes in government take place, they’ll never interfere with business growth and economic development in the Bahamas.”