Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Networking in Wales....The Village Effect

The following article orginally appeared in this month's edition of The National Networker

In some areas, the ability to network effectively will be a big help to the growth and success of a business. In others it’s not just helpful, it’s simply essential.

Wales is an area where networking is booming at the moment, in particular there has been a growth in the number of new networks opening in the main commercial centres of Cardiff, Swansea and Newport. As well as offering more opportunities for local business people to connect with each other, these networks are the key to doing business in these cities for people based elsewhere in Wales, or from across the border.

Always renowned for its sense of community, there remains a strong sense of local identity for businesses in Wales. It’s not just about Welsh companies working with fellow nationals, where you are based in Wales is equally as important.

“In Wales, life is based very much around community, so ten miles counts. It’s tough for Cardiff people to do business in Swansea, or the Valleys above Pontypridd”, says Ian McAllister, a West Country born but Welsh educated and based businessman. “You have to be more network orientated over less. In England I could pitch on a whole region or even national level, in Wales it’s Cardiff at best unless I am introduced. Network and knowing people is EVERYTHING in Wales.”

Despite living in Wales, Ian bases his offices across the border in Bristol to take advantage of the greater population density in surrounding areas. He therefore ensures that he mentions that he lives in Wales as early as possible in his conversations with new Welsh connections.

“I state early in any conversation that I live in Wales – that’s as important as where the business address is. For instance, Bristol based businesses will find it difficult to sell in Wales. Hiring a Welsh home-located salesman or opening a Welsh based office will change the effect dramatically – reputation and being part of the Welsh community is of key importance.”

That’s not to say that Welsh companies won’t do business with others from outside their area. What is clear, however, is that you can’t simply walk in and expect to win business. It is important to immerse yourself in the local networks and build a strong reputation. Once you have done that, the Welsh marketplace can suddenly become a lot more accessible.

Cheryl Bass runs Prosper Business Referral Network. Prosper is a new and exclusive business referral network where membership is by invitation only Prosper currently runs networking groups in Cardiff and Swansea in Wales and Bath in Western England, and Cheryl believes that the openness of Welsh networkers lowers, rather than raises, barriers to trade.

“It is very easy to network in Wales. From what I have experienced to date the Welsh members are naturally inquisitive and interested in other businesses and are so willing to work on developing a wide range of stakeholder relationships. The Welsh scene is very closely knit and individuals recognise the value of supporting one another in achieving success.

“It doesn’t take long to work a route through the system to speak to anyone anywhere in Wales.”

So, if people are so welcoming and inquisitive, why is there still so much focus on local communities? Almost everyone I spoke to told me about the importance of the ‘three villages’ of Cardiff, Swansea and Newport and of the difficulty of doing business outside of your home area.

It seems that there are a mixture of factors at play. Certainly, the geographical make-up of Wales has an effect; as, to a more limited extent, do language differences. Much of Wales is rural, meaning that the population density outside the main commercial centres would not support the range of networking seen elsewhere. Additionally, the Welsh language is more commonly heard in some areas of the country than others, and that provides another, natural barrier to people from outside.

Hedd Adams-Lewis runs Red Dragon Events. Originally based in Tamworth, in the English Midlands, Hedd moved his business back to Cardigan in West Wales last year. Networking locally is, however, difficult for Hedd and most of his efforts are still concentrated in England, or online.

“If you are outside of the 3 major population centres of South Wales then business networking is very much limited to your local chamber of commerce - if there is one! Representatives from business from the three centres are often reluctant and sceptical about venturing outside of their comfort zone and focus their efforts within their geographical area. Businesses from outside these areas are often faced with scepticism as to how worthy or genuine a business they are because they are not based within the major centres.

“The population density and correspondingly business density outside of the three major areas is significantly reduced, especially the further West you venture. A lot of businesses in rural areas would be cynical towards the idea of networking with strangers and struggle to understand the potential value to their businesses – ‘we’ve always done it this way and it’s always worked’ kind of attitude - even though they might be working every hour possible and struggling to make any headway! It’s as if working every possible hour is seen as an honourable thing to do, or a sign of success to the outside world!”

The North/South divide in Wales also comes into play, with the geography of the country making it difficult for business relationships to develop between the two areas. Gareth Davies, a professional speaker based in Cardiff, doesn’t see this changing, despite efforts to bring the two communities closer together.

“North Wales does very little business with South Wales and vice versa. The government has tried to help this situation by providing one off events but the geography of the country is such that it will always be a barrier. Therefore it is far easier for companies in the south to deal with Bristol or London or anywhere in between and for the North Walians to deal with Liverpool and Manchester.”

Political machinations and inter-city rivalries also play a key role in maintaining the village feel of Welsh networking. Ian McAllister feels that this is a major issue and points to problems following the collapse of the Cardiff Chamber of Commerce earlier this year as indicative of the wider issues.

“In the solution for a replacement that’s being negotiated, Cardiff people want it their way, while Newport and Swansea don’t want to be seen being wholly consumed as part of Cardiff’s solution for Cardiff’s problems. There is much in-fighting between the communities at many levels – government, socially, business, sport, etc. For inward investment projects, communities will fight and try and out-bid each other – the inter-community politics at times can be awful. It’s no different for business.”

Caroline Newman, of XL Results Foundation, an international network of social entrepreneurs, believes that a result of this inter-city competition is that the Welsh are too inward looking. She believes that the over reliance on government grants and funding has had a negative effect on Welsh business and fostered a dependency culture.

Caroline wants to see a future where Welsh businesses are more outward looking and connecting with business owners all over the globe through on line and off line networking. “This is now a truly global economy and Welsh business owners will miss out on opportunities if they are not actively looking to network and do business with people in the rest of the UK, Europe and worldwide. They will not survive and grow if they only do business with who they know now.”

This inward focus and community structure means that businesses looking to develop markets away from their home area must be prepared to invest time and effort in building strong relationships and, most importantly, trust. What is clear from the discussions I had is the importance of building those relationships city by city. You won’t build a cross-Wales network by focusing your efforts in just one area. Local relationships really do matter.

“While the people in both areas are business focussed, I find over the Bridge (in England), people like to do business first and get to know you afterwards; in Wales it is definitely the other way around”, said Lynne Orton, who runs Business Network, one of the longest established networking organisations in Wales, with networks in Carmarthen, Swansea, Bridgend, Cardiff and Newport. .

“In our networking groups in Cardiff and Newport we have had many visitors from England; they have recognised that the Welsh way of doing business is different from the English way, and that is where networking groups come to the fore when trying to break into the business market in Wales.

“There is no great divide between Welsh & English businesses; but particularly in Wales people like to do business with people they know – and if they get to know you through networking they will be comfortable working with you.”

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