SMEs are engines of sustainable growth and employment

RICS President Ann Gray FRICS speaks to three SME founders about the benefits of starting your own business in the built environment


  • Ann Gray FRICS

05 October 2023

Ann Gray leaning against a wall with arms folded looking at camera

Photography by Ball & Albanese

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) make an unmistakeable contribution to successful societies and economies. The World Trade Organization estimates that SMEs represent over 90% of the business population, 60-70% of employment and 55% of GDP in developed economies.

Within our own profession, our most recent data shows that 86% of UK and Ireland members work in an SME environment and I suspect this is also true on a global scale.

No two SME professionals are alike, though they often share traits that lead to success in a small firm environment, and I believe large firms may be missing out on some of the best, most diverse talent available. Small firm owners by necessity take great care of their clients and returning customers mean less time spent marketing. Small business owners are impatient in a good way. Innovation, speed and efficiency characterise our work because we do actually want more time with the family.

Small firm founders manifest confidence and pride in their work. Highly talented employees that find themselves left behind because of corporate glass ceilings may start their own businesses so they can be in charge of their own rewards and recognition. This means small firms are more diverse overall and female firms in particular are markedly more successful by many measures.

SMEs are an important part of achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, for example to ‘promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all’ (Goal 8). And to ‘build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialization and foster innovation’ (Goal 9). SMEs are critical to achieving the SDGs

A rewarding choice, not an easy one

Marion Ellis, founder of The Surveyor Hub, explains that choosing to create an SME means surveyors can align their business with what matters most to themselves: “To get to that point you need to develop confidence, resilience and shed any past ways of working which didn’t serve you. Personal growth can lead to professional growth if you allow it and that’s not always possible in the same way if you are employed.”

Tim Lawson, founder of ECL Chartered Surveyors, who’s been running his own businesses for over 20 years, agrees: “We are in complete control of our own destiny and can adapt very quickly.”

He highlights that a lack of corporate constraints can help keep work focused on clients, while also enabling colleagues to focus more on supporting each other: “I speak to each employee at least once a day and they can speak to me at any time. We all review work and provide feedback to others constantly.”

Ian Sloan has been running his own firm, Bankier Sloan Chartered Surveyors for almost 40 years. He told me: “Enjoying being small is essential to be successful. Your time away from the office can be used to understand your clients better. You will find many of your clients will give you work constantly, providing you react quickly and in a professional manner.

“Successful small practices,” he adds, “are often those who create a niche market, be it geographically or by providing exceptional knowledge that meets regional or even national needs."

That’s not to say that SME life is an easy choice. “Accept the fact you will work 60-plus hours a week,” says Sloan. For those with a family, he notes, it can be even more difficult, requiring a good second income to support the household through the start-up phase (although Tim Lawson points out that the opportunity to work more flexibly can be useful to parents).

Marion Ellis also highlights financial uncertainty: “Cashflow is critical but it’s the attitude we have to money and risk that changes from us being driven by fear to being confident in our abilities to run a profitable business.”

Tim Lawson points to some of the practical challenges for small organisations: “A lack of internal administration resources such as HR and marketing means business management time has to be well disciplined and prioritised with specialist advice needed externally. Embracing and developing modern practices such as social media and AI are aspirational, but often not affordable.”

Enabling RICS members to thrive in SMEs

At RICS, we want our SME members to flourish. Our SME Business Support Hub is a great place to start finding out more. Whether an experienced or start-up SME professional, you’ll find tailored support and resources, such as: guidance covering business models; statutory requirements; insurance; financial management; marketing and promotion; and practical advice on aspects of buying, selling, or leasing property. We’ve also got a monthly SME newsletter, sharing relevant support, insight and knowledge – you can sign up to receive it by emailing the RICS SME team.

Our quarterly UK Economy and Property Market Update is designed with SMEs in mind, providing the kind of detailed analysis and insight that may otherwise be out of reach. We’ve added a webinar to take members through the latest updates and provide a forum for their questions.

We’re also determined to ensure SMEs within our profession are seen, celebrated and supported as a force for good. So, we have initiatives in place to help amplify the impact of this thriving member segment.

“Highly talented employees that find themselves left behind because of corporate glass ceilings may start their own businesses” Ann Gray FRICS, RICS President

Helping SMEs to learn, share and connect

A core aspect of RICS is community. Networks and connection are important for all members, but for SMEs particularly, they’re a means to build skills, develop business opportunities, maintain morale, or seek support in challenging and unpredictable markets. To support this, RICS regional boards are organising a growing schedule of face-to-face and online gatherings. These events aren’t just useful, they’re a great experience too, especially for the sole practitioner whose success depends on a robust professional network. Check your regional board’s events calendar to find out what’s happening in your area.

Online, MyRICS hosts chat communities for professionals in SMEs and for sole traders. Members can meet, share insight and create connections with fellow professionals. You can take part in the conversations by logging in to MyRICS.

RICS is running a month of activity dedicated to SMEs in October. This includes a roundtable at which members can share views on the priorities for supporting SMEs more effectively.  We’re also holding a face-to-face gathering at our Birmingham office. Sign up here, and look out for details on RICS social and communications channels.

This is all part of the member-focused strategy that RICS has adopted this year and I hope all my fellow SMEs, wherever you are, find a way to take part.

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