When it came to the question of who would take over at the helm the Entrepreneurs’ Forum following the departure of Nicola Short, few could have argued with Gillian Marshall’s credentials.
A leading figure in business support, commercial connections and promoting the North East for investment, it must have seemed like she was made for the role.
Perhaps, though, Gillian’s stand-out trait isn’t so much her experience, but her grasp of what it takes to be an entrepreneur in a rapidly changing business world.
Even more importantly, she’s aware of what a difference the right environment can make when it comes to developing confidence, growing connections and finding the right support.
“We have a strong community of entrepreneurship in the North East and even if they face barriers to growth, those entrepreneurs will just get on and do it,” she said.
“It takes vision and commitment, as well as a drive for the development of the business. Things won’t go swimmingly well all the time, but, if they get knocked down, they’ll get up and start again.”
Forum members, who had “been there, done that”, she added, were always keen to share their insights.
“I’m inspired by the community of help and support that are offered,” she said.
“There’s no competitive element in it and that’s because these are owner-managers talking peer-to-peer. When members come together, it feels very relaxed.
“People are coming together to build relationships and learn from each other. There’s also a sense of ambition for the North East as whole.”
Established 12 years ago by North East business leaders such as Sir Peter Vardy and Lorna Moran, the Forum was initially brought to life through public funding from One North East.
Under Nicola Short’s leadership, however, it has been transformed into a self-sustaining not-for-profit membership organisation, made up of more than 300 entrepreneurs and 14 corporate partners.
Gillian, who has been in the chief executive role since September, leads a team of seven, responsible for the Forum’s 30 annual events – including two conferences and an awards night – as well as its renowned mentoring scheme, which takes the form of everything from informal, confidential support to drop-in sessions and one-to-one meetings.
Seeing itself as the voice of growth-orientated owner-managed businesses in the region, the organisation is also keen to influence government and other regional stakeholders when it comes to the recognising the importance of entrepreneurship.
Through its Quarterly Business Tracker survey, it can highlight all that’s great within the North East business community – rising sales, growing optimism and export successes, to begin with – as well as persistent barriers to growth.
“One of the main concerns at the moment is the skills agenda – finding the right people at the right level, from apprentices through to key qualified individuals,” Gillian said.
“This is a problem that affects every single sector, but you see a lot of it in technology, as well as manufacturing and engineering. It remains one of the biggest challenges to business growth, not just regionally, but nationally.
“Here, though, people are really starting to talk about it and it’s on the agenda with the likes of the LEPs, the Chamber of Commerce and Institute of Directors. Generally speaking, it is something that’s now recognised – but there’s a lot more that can still be done.”
Similarly problematic is the perennial issue of red tape.
“Businesses feel that however much they say, it’s not going to have an influence,” Gillian said. “Around 11% of members highlighted it as a challenge in our last survey.
“We’re not here to influence that directly, but we can share the survey with other bodies who each have different routes to addressing the Government.”
From some members’ points of view, she added, the perceived levels of bureaucracy surrounding some grants meant they simply weren’t worth bothering about.
“But that’s something we may need to change, because there are people there to help.
“Perhaps perceptions from three, four or even five years ago still linger. There may not be much funding around, but there are pockets and we should be encouraging people to access these.”
Gillian should know – she’s spent the bulk of her working life looking at corporate finance and the mechanisms through which businesses are created and sustained.
It wasn’t always her plan – growing up in Durham, she wanted to be a teacher – but a successful work placement at Barclays Bank saw her eventually securing a job at the firm on leaving school.
Starting in admin, she worked her way up to manage a team of 40 looking after corporate funding for SMEs, before taking responsibility for high net worth clients.
“I was there for 22 years and that gave me great exposure to how small and medium-sized businesses operate,” she said.
“Interestingly, when we were looking at the barriers to growth for entrepreneurs in our last survey, accessing finance wasn’t named as being among the main challenges.
“People are now looking at various alternatives, including bank funding, venture capitalists, angel investors, private equity, and, of course, crowdfunding is creeping in.
“Lots of people are interested in that route, while others just want to know more about it and what its place is.
“I’m a great believer in different methods of raising capital for business,
“If we can demystify the process, it helps businesses understand the choices they actually have.”
Gillian’s knowledge of enterprise and the support mechanisms available grew further during an eight-year spell as business adviser with the Business & Enterprise Group, raising the profile of and access to Business Link.
At one point during that role, she was tasked with rounding up 400 businesses at the Newcastle Gateshead Hilton, so they could share their thoughts with Sir Alan Sugar, then the Government’s enterprise tsar.
“It allowed him to understand what businesses here needed,” she said. “To re-run something like that would be great – something that allows businesses here to influence the Government directly.”
From the Business & Enterprise Group, Gillian moved to UK Trade & Industry (UKTI), where she was tasked with raising the profile of how the organisation could support foreign investors looking at the benefits of the UK.
Gillian was responsible for covering the Birmingham North area, but, in the end, was only there for a year before initially joining the Entrepreneurs’ Forum in May 2013 as business development manager.
“Working for UKTI on a national project was fantastic, but my passion is for the North East and North East business growth,” she said. “My first role involved growing the membership, bringing in and supporting new members. Then, in September, I took over as chief executive.
“Nicola had done a fantastic job of taking the forum from a One North East-supported body to a fully-sustainable membership organisation, and so far, I’ve really been enjoying it. I believe I have a great opportunity now to take the forum on to the stage, building membership, delivering great events and supporting mentoring in the region.
“I would love to see it grow and develop, but at the same time keep the sense of friendship, trust and community it has at the moment.”
She added that, going forward, further collaboration would also be desirable, with bodies like the LEPs, the CBI and Institute of Directors working together for the betterment of the region.
“If the forum can be a key part of that, then it’s a success – it’s done its job,” she said. “I’m just really passionate about the North East and, by working together, I believe we can continue to grow and develop.”
Entrepreneurs’ Forum chairman Nigel Mills said: “The role of the Entrepreneurs’ Forum CEO is both challenging and demanding and, with her experience and record of success in business support and putting people in touch, Gillian could not be better qualified.
“There is a huge job to do in the North East and we remain as ambitious and as focused as ever on helping put entrepreneurs at the forefront of opportunities for growth.
“We are a strong, sustainable organisation for which Nicola must take an enormous amount of credit, and for which we thank her immensely.”