From burgers to sponges and aeroplane parts to coffee beans – these are just some of the great West Midlands manufacturers that have been able to grow thanks to an innovative investment scheme.
Green Shoots Plus, led by the Shropshire Star, sister paper the Express and Star and the University of Wolverhampton, has seen more than £4 million of grants handed to 65 small or medium-sized businesses.
Businesses have used the grants to buy new equipment, new premises or invest in new technology to allow them to expand.
Many of the firms risked not being able to compete for major contracts without the help of Green Shoots Plus which is supported by the Government’s Regional Growth Fund.
More than £2.7m of the funding was awarded to 42 businesses in the Black Country with a further £1.1m going to 19 companies in Telford and Shropshire.
While £239,031 went to businesses in Herefordshire and £58,021 in South Staffordshire.
The scheme has been praised by top politicians, business leaders and even championed in the House of Commons.
Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton Professor Ian Oakes said: “We are delighted that the partnership between the Shropshire Star and Express & Star has been able to distribute more than £4m of government funding to small and medium-sized businesses in the Black Country and the Marches.
“We have seen 408 jobs created in this region and safeguarded a further 200 – that is a brilliant achievement.
“This scheme has been a catalyst for the region in supporting local businesses who need a helping hand and who will repay society many times over with what they can do with the grants.
“Small to medium enterprises are very much the engine room of the UK economy and it is vital that they can continue to develop and be successful.
“The University of Wolverhampton is proud to play a leading role in economic regeneration in the West Midlands and recognises the importance of attracting government funding into our region to support local business growth.”
Green Shoots Plus is a bigger and wider-ranging successor to the pioneering Green Shoots Fund, which has distributed more than £1m in grants to 35 businesses across the Black Country. The original fund created 129 jobs and safeguarded a further 74.
Among the companies to have benefited from the funding is innovative Oswestry-based inflatables specialist Lindstrand Technolgies, which has used a £150,000 grant to help it build a new hot air balloon factory beside its current site.
That replaces another company, which was called Lindstrand Balloons but which was not connected to the company, which closed its operation in the town in 2015.
The closure of that factory led to redundancies in the town, but the latest Green Shoots-backed investment is set to bring about 15 jobs back.
Owner Per Lindstrand said: “We are very lucky to have a full order book because the lowering of the pound by 20 per cent makes us very competitive in the marketplace and people are calling us from everywhere – we are really booked up until August.
“We have built a brand new factory. When you’re making hot air balloons we do it on the floor. You need a modern, clean factory, and this one should be up and running by late March or early April.
“With the support of the Green Shoots Plus we have been able to build this without hesitation.”
The Ludlow Nut Company is another company to capitalise on the grant funding. Like Lindstrand, it is building a factory, off the Foldgate Lane in Ludlow, and installing new machinery.
Once the investment is complete, which is likely to be around the turn of the year, the business is poised to take on another four staff thanks to the £123,000 grant.
The new site will triple its floorspace, and substantial increase its production capacity as it increasingly sells products into export markets and picks up manufacturing work for other businesses. Robert Graham, from the company, said: “If it wasn’t for the grant we wouldn’t be able to move to the accommodation we are having built.
“We are investing a considerable sum ourselves into the scheme, but if it wasn’t for the grant I don’t know whether we would be able to do it. It has made the difference to our ability to go ahead with our growth plan.”
He added: “We export to Japan, Hong Kong, Norway, Spain, with a mix of our product range. We are producing a growth plan, and the main growth areas are exports and manufacturing other companies’ products.”
The Real Coffee Bag Company in Shrewsbury has been another beneficiary from the grant fund, and used its allocation to install new machinery to improve production of its coffee products.
The company received almost £27,000, which will allow the company to take on another four staff.
“It used to take us 40 seconds to make a bag, and when we got our first big order we had to make 3,000 bags by hand, and it took about three weeks.
“One of these machines can do 50 or 60 in a minute,” said Paul Day, from the company.
“The other machine does the bags and puts it into a outer wrapper, in the way you get in hotels, conferences and B&Bs.
“The key thing is it enables us to take on larger orders. We had the machines delivered from China directly into our new unit at Battlefield. It means we could then go for larger contracts and allows us to do other white label work for other roasters.”
Leanne Crowther, co-founder of sweet treat company Flower & White, said the funding had enabled the business to move in January from rented space in Shrewsbury to its own new business unit in Halesfield, Telford.
“The funding has allowed us to expand, as we used it as a deposit to purchase our new premises in Telford. Without it, we would not have been able to buy,” she said.
“As a result we, as a business, are now really grounded. It has given us a great opportunity, and platform to work from.”
TCL Packaging in Telford was one of the first businesses to benefit from Green Shoots Plus.
It received a grant of more than £50,000 towards a £180,000 project to limit solvent emissions from the company’s factory on Stafford Park.
Having invested in new machinery, the company was close to the legal limit for solvent emissions.
The grant helped the company to invest in minimising those emissions, helping the environment and allowing for future expansion which would otherwise have been stifled.
It led to 20 new jobs being created by the packaging maker, which has a turnover more than £8 million a year.
Another beneficiary was The 3D Measurement Company Ltd in Bridgnorth, which was handed a £33,000 grant to help install a temperature-controlled automated measuring cell to allow it to expand its revenues.
Shropshire Star editor Martin Wright said: “This has been a fantastic partnership between the newspapers and local businesses.
“It has had a positive impact on employment in our local communities and it is rewarding to see that as a result of this initiative, jobs have been created and protected.
“We are extremely proud to have played a part in stimulating the local economy.”
Green Shoots Plus was aimed at businesses working in advanced manufacturing, building technologies, transport technologies, including aerospace, environmental technologies or business to business services, such as accountancy, design and print, electrical, advertising or marketing.
Applicants could seek a grant worth between £10,000 and £150,000 to cover up to 30 per cent of the costs of their plans for job creation and expansion.
The project was administered by the University of Wolverhampton and overseen by a panel of expert business leaders. It is supported by the Shropshire Star and its sister paper the Express & Star
Applicants needed to have been turned down by their banks for the required funding and not to have had more than £175,000 in public funding in the past three years.
The funding came from the Regional Growth Fund which was launched under the coalition government in 2010.
Since its launch, the Regional Growth Fund has invested £2.6 billion to help local businesses grow and take on more staff across England.
On average for every £1 invested, the private sector has put in £5.50 with the total investment of private sector support expected to be £16 billion. In total 187,000 jobs have already been created and a total of 557,000 are expected by the mid-2020s.
The original Green Shoots fund was launched back in 2013 in a bid to offer grants of up to £50,000 to small and medium-sized companies struggling to get finance.
Chris Leggett, brand and communications manager for Shropshire Star and Express & Star publisher Midland News Association, is part of the expert panel that has selected businesses for funding.
He said: “For many businesses, particularly in the early days of the initiative during the recession, there was a a gap for funding.
“The companies that have benefited are largely those which would otherwise struggle to get access to funding for projects.
“Now these businesses, which are a mixture of traditional regional companies and modern enterprises, have been able to grow and take on more staff.
“As the leading publisher in the region, this has been a project where we have been able to lead the way alongside our partners to make a real difference.”
Following the 2015 Spending Review, no future rounds of the fund are proposed but the University of Wolverhampton is exploring new ways it can help businesses in the Black Country and the wider West Midlands.
Delighted MPs queue up to praise scheme
The Green Shoots Fund has been praised by MPs and ministers – including on the floor of the House of Commons.
After Black Country MP Ian Austin praised the fund in the House of Commons, business secretary Greg Clark said: “Having dipped my toes into controversy by talking about places with claims to be the cradle of the industrial revolution, I am certainly not going to nominate the best local newspaper in the country – suffice to say that I gather the foreign secretary began his illustrious career on the Express & Star, although I do not know whether that shows its prescience or whether it has recovered from that particular judgment.
“Local newspapers make a vital contribution to the success of local business and I am delighted to hear about the initiative,” he said.
Shrewsbury MP Daniel Kawczynski said Green Shoots Plus was an excellent example of people who really understood the county and its businesses using government money to boost the local economy.
“Last week it was announced that unemployment was down to 4.7 per cent – that’s a 10-year low – and it is extremely important that we continue to support small and medium-sized enterprises which play a vital role in the future growth of the economy,” he said.
“We need to encourage them to export more. There will be some really exciting opportunities to sell to Commonwealth and overseas markets in the coming years. I would support the work The Star is doing in supporting small and medium-sized enterprises with government money.
“It is a favourite expression of mine that business is the workhorse that pulls the social welfare cart.
“I’m all for government money being distributed by people who understand Shropshire and the specific requirements of Shropshire businesses.”
North Shropshire MP Owen Paterson also welcomed the scheme, saying that small businesses play a huge rule in supporting the county’s economy.
“Unemployment is now down to 1.4 per cent and nationally unemployment is the lowest it has been since 1975,” he said.
“This is all down to the hard work of entrepreneurs in the county, encouraged by excellent schemes such as Green Shoots Plus.
“I totally support this as a way to encourage small businesses in our area.”
Mark Pritchard, MP for The Wrekin, has also backed the scheme.
“This is good news for the region and Shropshire,” he said.
“Hopefully, some of these new businesses will grow into larger companies and create even more jobs.”Subscribe to our Newsletter