For Local Enterprise Week, Dr Niall O’Keeffe (head of enterprise at the Local Enterprise Office, Cork City) writes about the challenges small businesses are currently facing

Small and medium-sized enterprises are the backbone of our economy. According to the Central Statistics Office, companies employing fewer than 250 people accounted for 99.8% of all active enterprises in Ireland during 2020 and generated almost 42% of the total turnover in the business economy that year.

The figures for the number of new business start-ups officially registered during 2021 are also very positive at more than 25,000, however, it’s estimated more than one business a day closes in Ireland.

At the Local Enterprise Office, we support the development and growth of businesses with 50 employees or fewer. Last year, supports provided by LEOs enabled the creation of 7,870 new jobs nationally. In Cork, the biggest challenges we’re seeing is the recruitment and retention of staff.

There are a range of financial supports available for enterprises at the pre-start, start-up and business expansion stage. However, SMEs are competing for talent with large companies with much greater resources.

The economic uncertainty, high inflation and increasing cost of doing business are all having an impact. The retail sector has been hit hard, especially the bricks and mortar stores in our cities and towns.

This year’s Local Enterprise Week in Cork City started with an event focusing on the future of retail, best practice and equipping businesses with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed.

During 2022, we provided training to almost 1,500 people. Local Enterprise Week is a snapshot of that.

There is a strong focus on competitiveness, productivity, green issues, digitalisation and innovation. Today, we will be exploring how ChatGPT can help your business. Making labour-intensive tasks digital is one of the quickest ways to drive down costs for a business.

Businesses are also continuing to make the transition to online trading — last year 100 companies in Cork City availed of trading online vouchers.

We’re seeing an increase in the number of businesses contacting us about succession planning and we’re developing specialist programmes to help family businesses prepare for the future.

As part of Local Enterprise Week, we’ve launched an 86-page booklet which aims to assist entrepreneurs in Cork to navigate the range of support available at each stage of business. There is a wealth of support available from a broad range of organisations.

‘Business Development in Cork: An Entrepreneurs Guide 2023’ features detailed information including the experiences and advice from Cork-based businesses who have received similar support.

There is an incredible ecosystem in Cork and our new guide aims to map that out and we hope it will lead to further job creation. At LEO Cork City, we’re following the data and listening to what people need and evolving to meet that.

There will always be challenges but the resilience of micro and small businesses in Cork City is remarkable and together we can face whatever comes our way.