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The smallest of businesses are having a particularly tough time in the present economic climate and need more help, less bureaucracy and more simplified advice, MP Anne-Marie Morris told a women in business conference on Friday.
Morris, who set up the All Party Parliamentary Group on Micro Businesses, told the My Business Adventure conference in London that she was working on ways to help micro businesses succeed.
She spoke about her own career and said she felt the key to her success had been her ability to spot an opportunity. Her father was a lawyer and expected her to follow suit, which she did. However, she says, she soon realised that law and her was not a perfect match. “Law requires focus, detail, being well organised. I am a bit of a vision person. I’m more interested in the big picture,” she said.
She was working in a commercial law firm at the time and “was making a lot of money for people who were already well off”. She started looking around at the young lawyers in the firm who felt disconnected from their clients and thought there was work to be done to improve the communication between lawyers and clients. She started training them and helping them write more clearly. Soon after the head of the firm’s education team was headhunted and suggested she apply for his job.
She had no qualifications in education, but prepared well for the interview and got the job. “It was a sharp learning curve,” she said. “The key thing was that I understood the way lawyers’ minds worked.” She developed training programmes and worked with the Law Society.
But soon she was looking for a new challenge. Having changed the way the law firm worked, she wanted to change the entire legal profession, she said.
She decided to become a marketing director so she found out what qualifications she would need and began an MBA with the Open University. She then went about headhunting top law firms. She wrote to 10 firms, got four interviews and two job offers. “I feel I very much made my own luck,” she said. “I could not have succeeded if I hadn’t worked out what I needed to do the job.”
The international law firm which took her one wanted her to do education and marketing. She enjoyed the job, but started getting restless again and wanted to have an impact on the global stage. So she sought out a global firm.
However, as her second husband was a partner in the firm, she was considered to have a conflict of interest. She figured out that to get ahead she needed to change to a different field and chose accountancy. It was a different way of looking at the world, but she eventually got used to it and ended up as Ernst & Young’s global marketing director.
However, she still felt unfulfilled. So she moved into politics, got elected as a county councillor and became involved in another new field, health. Having learnt the ropes in local politics, she applied for around 20 different parliamentary seats. As she needed to earn while she was going through the arduous process of seeking a seat, she set up her own business. “That taught me a lot about myself,” she said.
Morris was elected as a Conservative MP for Newton Abbot in Devon at the last election and almost immediately realised the need for more work to be done on small businesses, particularly given her own experience and the fact that the West Country has a disproportionate number of small businesses.
She launched the All Party Parliamentary Group on Micro Businesses with 100 Members of Parliament and representatives from the House of Lords to lobby Government.
Since then she has been working with the tax office and the Treasury to simplify the tax system for small businesses, for instance, she is lobbying for a flat tax rate. She is also working on individual taxes, such as VAT. She wants to simplify the National Insurance system and believes small businesses should not be subject to the same amount of regulation as the big firms since form filling and compliance takes up a disproportionate amount of their time. “We need simpler ways of being in business,” she says.
She is also working with education policymakers on how to get entrepreneurialism introduced into the school curriculum so children consider setting up a business as a potential career. And she is working with organisations on opening up small businesses’ access to finance through, for instance, non-bank finance, such as community development finance institutions.
The My Business Adventure conference was for women in business and included a series of speeches and workshops on issues ranging from marketing to building up your confidence.
Morris finished her speech by saying that government had a role to play to enable people to set up a business, but one of the most difficult things for women was having the confidence to start up on your own.
“I have had some really black moments [Morris has been married and divorced three times], but I look on the positive things I have achieved. I think it’s about spotting your opportunities and they might come from the most unlikely places.”
She added a word of caution gleaned from her own experience: “You need to get the balance right if you want a family life. You lose something about what makes you good at what you do if you don’t get that right. I have learnt this the hard way.”