Supporting business that creates wealth and growth should be our main priority

I see that in the USA there is a similar debate as here in South Africa about whether government should support small firms or growing firms.
Andrew Hargadon wrote a brilliant post on the debate that was brought to my attention by Tim Kastelle. Hargadon argues that hindsight is often mistaken for foresight. He explains that many small firms stay small for many years before they grow, and that it is hard to predict which will grow, which will just survive and which would fail. From my own business and consulting experience I support his view and have seen on many occasions that it sometimes takes a change of ownership or management to get a small enterprise onto a growth path. But sometimes we are so obsessed with the romantic idea of an entrepreneur fighting an honorable fight against market forces and the onerous framework conditions that we miss the bigger picture. Some people are good at starting enterprises, others are good at growing enterprises, other good at maintaining an enterprises. Some will just never be able to do it no matter how much support you provide (or waste). Most people will make better employees than entrepreneurs.

The myth that small enterprises drives growth and employment is an old one, one that is firmly in the rooted in minds of policy makers and development practitioners here in RSA and in our region. There seems to be a confusion between correlation and causation. Even if statistics shows that 60% of people in RSA are employed in small enterprises (thus a correlation seem to exist between small firms and employment) it does not tell us anything about causation (does small firms create employment, or does more employment lead to more small firms being created). Research by many reputable scholars have shown that small enterprises hardly drives growth, but that it often responds to growth; it is more likely that larger better resourced companies will drive growth and efficiency in the economy, with ecosystems of small firms emerging around them providing specialized and also some general services.

For instance, the reputable scholar Thorsten Beck argues that the dynamism of enterprises is more important than the size of small firms in the total economy. I first came across Becks work while doing my PhD research (he has since moved from the Worlbank to Tilburg University). Beck has done many cross-country micro economic studies and argues that:“Policy efforts targeted at SMEs have often been justified with arguments that

(1) SMEs are an engine of innovation and growth and

(2) they help reduce poverty because they are labor-intensive and thus stimulate job growth, but

(3) they are constrained by institutional and market failures.

Cross-country, country-level, and microeconomic studies, however, do not support these claims. One study shows that, although faster-growing economies have a higher share of SME employment in their manufacturing sectors, it is not the size of this segment that drives growth“.

The full report can be found here

Here in South Africa development practitioners have the challenge that we have to pursue objectives that are in conflict.
Everyone seems to agree that we should create more employment, as the waste of human capital in our country is just socially not sustainable nor justifiable. Yet, we are constrained in that we cannot always support those firms that are more likely to create employment because of the race of the owners, or for other demographic criteria or preconditions. Sadly, many entrepreneurs that can help us absorb the unemployed have left, or have shifted into industries where they don’t have to rely so much on low skilled workers. Many have simply taken up jobs in the corporate or service sectors (people like me and many others I know). The current legislative environment just does not make it easy or attractive enough for people to start new firms or expand existing ones. In fact, many people that have the capacity to start medium sized firms are investing their money elsewhere. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not against the principle of equity enshrined in our constitution, I strongly support this. I also believe that labor should be paid fairly in a just relationship. The current labour and BEE environment just does not make for an environment where people will start firms or spin-offs that will address our primary problem of unemployment.

I believe that having a job goes a long way to equipping (black or white, male or female, young or not-so-young) employees to start a business at some point when they have gained sufficient technical AND market experience. Employment experienced and education will still do much more for sustainable black economic empowerment than any other measure. Furthermore, a focus on employment (no matter what the profile of the employer is) will also increase our tax base so that we can do more to develop our country. I will not get into my feelings about too few taxpayers supporting a too big social spend and government here.

Whether big or small, I put my money behind family owned businesses (Yes, I have a small bias). They somehow have the ability to consider both short term but also long term priorities at the same time. Even if they don’t make decisions fast, or if they sometimes appear to be conservative, I found family owned businesses are more likely to continuously invest in better equipment, in developing capacity, and in securing new markets. Family owned businesses makes for more stable employment, and generally they are more aware of the social needs of their employees. But these are also the kind of firms that are least likely to give up shares and management positions if it does not make long term business sense, thus Black Economic Empowerment policies and many conditional support incentives actually undermines this (often unrecognized) backbone of our economy.

What most people choose to ignore is that 3 drivers of costs of business are escalating very rapidly. These are:

  1. cost of raw materials. We buy smaller volumes and pay more compared to other international markets, with many countries even subsidizing access to raw materials.
  2. cost of energy. Our energy cost has increased faster than firms could upgrade, so we are far from efficient and thus at disadvantage. Municipalities further charge double and triple digit margins on top of the official electricity rates. Lastly, those that want to expand often cannot secure or afford access to electricity due to more than a decade of underinvestment in the grid at municipal level
  3. cost of labour. Many other factors are making wages too low for workers to live on (like the cost of transport), while raising the cost component of labour in business without increasing productivity resulting in South African enterprises being uncompetitive. Most employers when they do agree to wage increases simply reduce their staff, because other types of productivity improvement simply takes too long to yield results.

There is only one way that I know of to overcome these 3 cost drivers, and that is innovation at all levels of the enterprise (product, process and business model innovation). We also need social innovation, especially with regards to finding better ways at training, re-training or current workforce and the unemployed.

I can see in many sectors that those entrepreneurs that can create businesses that mainly employes skilled or educated employees are able to compete domestically and internationally. Those enterprises that depend on low skilled workers will simply struggle to compete, their costs are just to high and more and more of them are failing. Larger firms with access to capital and debt are more likely to be able to balance the investments in capital and labour that is required to be profitable in our economy, while smaller firms are struggling to balance this while raising capital and exploring new markets at the same time. The transaction costs for smaller firms to experiment until the find a workable business model in many instances is just to high. This is visible in the popularity of franchises where an entrepreneur buys into a proven business model and where the costs of experimenting with the business model is shared by many franchisees. (I wish we had something similar in manufacturing).

From my research over the last 3 years into innovation in industries I can say with confidence that our smaller manufacturers are hardly investing in Research and Development, mainly because they are under such strong cost and competitive pressure. Those smaller firms that do innovate formally often do this on contract, meaning they are paid by larger firms to do so. Larger firms that are active internationally are more likely to pay for R & D in order to drive down costs while creating new markets and new products. In doing so they support a wide range of smaller firms that provide experts services, specialized components or other intermediary inputs needed by the larger firms.

In the end, we have to direct our funds to those that can create employment, create wealth, create new markets and create new kinds of jobs. We should assess which firms we support by looking at the multiplier effects and the spillovers. We should support those firms that optimally and responsibly use existing resources, whether it be financial, natural or human resources. We must try to support the areas where dynamism already exist to start with, and then we have to try and support dynamism elsewhere. But we should not assume that our large and established smaller enterprises are able to develop all by themselves. The current focus is too much on small and not enough on multipliers and dynamism in the whole economy.

For me all other priorities come second to the objectives of growth and wealth creation, as we cannot achieve all of our countries many priorities at the same time. Growth will absorb more people, will attract more investment, will create new markets, new skills and new opportunities. Wealth creation is as important for employees as it is for investors, entrepreneurs, managers and also the government.

We have to send a strong message to ALL entrepreneurs that we value their investment, their energy and their attempts to create new markets. But we cannot help all of them, and by assisting some of them based on social criteria will not take us toward our countries biggest crises, the unemployed youth, nor will it allow us to optimally leverage the wisdom and experience of our older generation of technicians, engineers, managers and academics no matter what their demographic profile.

Supporting business that creates wealth and responsible growth should be our main priority.

%d bloggers like this: