Case Studies

Martin Denton – MWM Signs

Martin Denton is the Managing Director of MWM Signs which specialises in supplying a complete range of signs and graphics with services which include the design, manufacture and installation of business, shop and restaurant signage as well as a full range of colour graphics and banners and CNC routing.  Based in Stockport, they cover Manchester, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Merseyside and Lancashire as well as servicing nationwide corporate clients for large rebranding rollouts.
Martin joined the first cohort of the Knowledge Action Network in October 2012. He thinks that he particularly benefitted from the group sessions:
‘When you are running your own business you don’t get the opportunity to interface with your peers which you do get in a larger company. Working for yourself can be a bit lonely. KAN has provided good opportunity to bounce ideas off each other and to share thoughts and plan for our companies. This has been especially valuable in times of change.’

Jonathan Ashworth – Mighty Giant

Mighty Giant is a design & motion company based in the Sharpe Project, Manchester, creating all forms of moving graphics - broadcast design, 3D, animation, titles & idents. We work with most of the main broadcasters in the UK, especially the BBC and are also developing new relationships in the corporate sector.
Director Jonathan Ashworth joined the first cohort of KAN in September 2012and has found KAN especially beneficial in terms of taking on new staff and managing finances.
KAN has been really useful for us. The group has been great and I’ve enjoyed coming to the university every month – I miss it now. The coaching has been invaluable. I’ve taken on another designer in the company having worked with freelance staff for the first 2 years of my business.  I’ve been supported all the way by my coach who helped me with some crucial decisions, even giving phone advice outside of our sessions. We are in a very exciting place at the moment and our company has  been nominated for the Prolific North Awards and Big Chip 2013.’

Mark Coleman – Homestyle

Homestyle  is a 14-year old family business based in Wigan.  Mark Coleman, his parents and brother are all involved in the company. They manufacture and distribute kitchen and bedroom furniture and associated products. In fact they are now one of the largest distributors of kitchen doors in the UK. Mark hadn’t been to college or university but, having taken on a Personal Trainer to help him successfully lose weight and get fit, Mark realised that he is the kind of person who can learn and benefit enormously from professional support, training and coaching.
He first participated in LEAD, he was then accepted onto Cohort 3 of Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business at MMU CfE. After completing the programme he chose to join Knowledge Action Network as he wanted to stay part of the MMU Centre for Enterprise. Mark says
‘The programme has been useful in setting up systems and keeping focus when so much is happening. I am working through my Business Plan and have leant an enormous amount about finance, I recently spotted an error in my accounts which could have cost me £16K’
During this period Mark has replaced staff who were not so productive with more innovative, positive colleagues with a ‘Can Do’ attitude. With the aid of the business coach has revolutionised the sales system, he has more confidence and reassurance to grow the business and sustain the growth. The company has recently taken on 3 new staff members.  


Frances McDonnell – Art Graphics UK Ltd

Art Graphics UK Ltd are a framing company based in the 2nd floor workshops of Adelphi Mill in picturesque Bollington. 
We design & manufacture high quality bespoke frames, and are committed to finding the best solutions to any challenge set, offering a creative and dedicated approach. 
With framing, it is the art that is important to us – we are constantly challenged, stretched & rewarded by striving to present work in its best possible light. We provide a complete business 'image' service, starting with choosing beautiful images, through visuals to demonstrate how the art will be displayed & finishing with trouble-free installation. We also offer additional services including graphic design, sign design & manufacture. 
Company Director,Frances McDonnell ‘s participation in KAN has lead to great changes in the company.
‘Meetings with our wonderfully supportive group and facilitator gradually made me realise that although we are different businesses, we are all in similar boats – each problem issue presented has had resounding echoes in individual companies and the combined objective problem solving skills of the group has diminished seemingly insurmountable problems. Participating in the Knowledge Action Network has so far given me increased confidence in my decision making and has led to us addressing and overhauling many different aspects of the business. We are now becoming a much more 'aware' and pro-active business, celebrating our quirkiness and creativity, streamlining this with newfound business skills, and realising that we still have much to learn. I would recommend this collaborative KAN process to anyone in business.’


Gary Vizard – Power Efficient Systems (PES)

Energy efficiency and manufacturing business PES has powered up its performance with support from MMU Centre for Enterprise, which has also helped the business secure a £9,000 tax allowance. Since embarking on MMU's enterprise development programmes 18 months ago, the Skelmersdale firm has grown its sales by 36% and is projecting a £3 million turnover in 2016.
Gary Vizard and wife Eileen set up PES from home in 2002 with one engineer. Today the company employs 12 staff and is currently recruiting 5 more people. A recent move into new 12,000 sq. ft. premises will support continued expansion. Growth for PES was steady for the first 10 years, but during recent years, energy costs have risen dramatically, providing strong demand for PES' energy efficient solutions.
Eighteen months ago, PES launched several new energy saving products, for both commercial and domestic use. At the same time, Gary was accepted onto the Knowledge Action Network (KAN) and then the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Programme, both programmes run by MMU’s Centre for Enterprise. Gary says that these programmes have assisted greatly with ramping up business growth.
Commenting on the MMU programmes, he said: “It has been really useful to have other company Directors to bounce ideas off.  It gives you an opportunity to look at the business from outside, instead of just struggling with the day-to-day. We have had advice on setting up proper contracts, on business planning and now on funding.”
PES have secured pilots with a leading retailer, a well-known Fitness and Leisure chain and a large Housing Association. These are proving extremely successful, with the clients saving 12.5% on energy bills. PES are now rebranding and rolling out their products to 100 sites for just one customer. Further growth is imminent.
Gary added: “We received brilliant advice from Peter Wild at MMU regarding tax allowances for Research and Development, which immediately saved PES £9K and allowed us to press ahead with further product development. My advice to anyone would be that if you think you may be eligible ring the Tax Office – they have a special department just dealing with Research and Development for SMEs.”

Tim Whitehill – FCE Projects Ltd

Taking time out to join the MMU Knowledge Action Network (KAN) Programme gave Tim Whitehill the clarity of purpose he required to determine a new strategic direction, involving launching a second business.  This has proved to be a wise move since the new company is growing fast and Tim and business partner Ian Cole are looking to recruit new staff.
Tim and Ian, both Civil Engineers and best friends from university, founded Capenhurst-based FCE Projects 10 years ago. The power network construction company has since grown to become a £2.4 million turnover business, employing 23 people. They are a strong business partnership with complementary skills, Tim is strategically focussed and Ian is excellent with clients and the operational side of the business.
When Tim joined the MMU programme, he was faced with a momentous decision as to whether to focus on growing the existing successful FCE business, or to consider starting up a brand new and additional business. He said: “When I came to KAN I wasn’t sure which business I wanted to really grow, which one to spend more time on. Taking time out to come to the groups made me rethink my priorities for the business.”
The peer-to-peer learning which is at the heart of KAN, and which draws together the experiences of a wide range of trusted business peers to focus on such critical questions, helped Tim to make his decision.  “We were able to use surplus funds from FCE to invest in the new company. It would have been possible to try and grow FCE further into a larger, more sector diverse company but we know and like our zone. From our knowledge of construction industry we felt our our business model would have to change and that the risk profile would increase. We therefore decided to diversify into another type of company rather than keep growing FCE into other areas of the construction sector.”
In the process of embarking on the new business venture, the partnership which had created such success for FCE, now needed to evolve.  Drawing on the learning from the KAN action learning sets and masterclasses, the team were able to successfully re-define their roles and structure to support the goals and ambitions of both partners and both businesses.   “The new company is already growing quickly in income and is taking on new staff.  We are looking for 3 new staff at present and have plans to grow over the next five years!”
Tim sees the impact of the programme in both businesses. “With FCE, we have strong relationships with major clients in a segment we know well, which has seen us grow £500,000 per year even in recession. Now there is renewed growth in construction and increased spend in this part of the market, we see even further opportunity for organic growth over the next 2-3 years.”
As Tim and Ian look to a continued growth journey with the group, the vital importance of the vision Tim honed as part of his work with Manchester Metropolitan University cannot be understated. “With any company you should develop a vision and stick to that vision. I knew from the outset what we wanted to achieve and it was therefore important that everyone shared that vision. Our real strength is understanding our business model and having the right business partner to complement each other’s skills and abilities.”

John Stutfield – BLISS Ltd

The peer-to-peer learning opportunities embedded in Centre for Enterprise small business development programmes has propelled Manchester creative and digital agency BLISS to new levels of success. With the tagline “a friendly digital agency in Manchester that's a pleasure to work with,” BLISS has recently grown its  turnover from £330,000 to £450,000 and increased staff from 4 to 14 employees. 

The business is built on a core partnership of three directors, but it was Jon Stutfield, the Creative Managing Director who first reached out to MMU for support in achieving BLISS's growth ambitions.  Jon applied and was selected against stiff competition to be part of both the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Programme and the Knowledge Action Network (KAN), on the basis of the great growth potential that his company displayed. Commenting on his learning journey, Jon said:

“Of everything we experienced, the thing that really made a difference to me was the peer-to-peer learning.  This was so good for us that when I had finished the 10,000 Small Businesses Programme I signed up straight away for KAN in order to carry on getting the benefits from a whole new group of people. Then the only problem with KAN was that the action learning groups were over too quickly!”

Jon also highlights the learning that he was able to implement from MMU academics and specialists, in particular: “Taking part in the programmes was a major time commitment at a time when I was very, very busy, but I just took so much away from it about funding and investment, about structure, about so many things. Martin Nolan was my Coach on both programmes and has been incredibly useful. I am having further sessions with him now and he is even going to carry on supporting the management partnership as we grow.”

Successfully striving through the early years as a fledgling company, was difficult for BLISS, as with so many truly successful small businesses.  When Jon proposed the initial business idea to his partners, the situation was very different to today’s growth story.

“I told them that if they came with me I could get them work, but might not be able to pay them! We started in the recession with three accounts but, fortunately for us, one was huge.  Even so, I needed money up front to pay the wages and managed some creative negotiations with our landlord, to let us off the rent for a time while we got going.  I am pleased to say, we are still with him now and in much larger premises! "

The partnership prevailed over these early hurdles, but it was the access to wider networks and communities of other ambitious small business owners that the programmes provided, which helped to accelerate BLISS’s current growth trajectory.

“We have employed quite a few people as interns from MMU and other universities, and then we’ve taken them on as permanent staff.”

Partners of the company have a complementary match of skills, which is a significant contributor to success. Jon established the vision and the ethos for the business; other directors are client facing, technical and creative. Newer staff have also bought into the company ethos of being approachable and friendly, but with systems and processes in place. 

With success already flowing into BLISS, Jon and his partners’ vision for the future is clear.

“The company name BLISS is based on the idea that an agency should be a pleasure to work with, being supportive to clients rather than just ruthlessly trying to grab money. We have no Sales Directors or Account Managers to get in the way so we don’t really ‘sell’, but instead build relationships. At the moment we have lots of great sales enquiries coming in automatically, so the approach is working!”