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Family firms are still out there with deep roots in communities

IN these days when the world appears ever more homogenous, it is little wonder that the decline of independent operators is often lamented.

The march of major national and international players, across a raft of sectors, shows no signs of slowing.

These big operators often have significant advantages over their smaller, independent competitors in terms of sheer marketing clout, geographical coverage, and, crucially, economies of scale.

Recent decades have seen the disappearance of many smaller players. This is probably most evident on the high street, but it applies in many sectors.

Against this backdrop, The Herald's recent Scottish Family Business Awards provided some welcome reassurance that there are still many independents out there which are more than holding their own against the big players.

The importance of independents goes way beyond ensuring the world is a more diverse and interesting place.

These businesses tend to have their roots much more firmly in local communities, and are obviously there for the duration.

Contrast this with big players which regularly close down sites just because finance chiefs, often in distant locations, decide these no longer stack up economically once the group accountancy policies are applied.

What was most eye-catching among the impressive array of entrants in the Scottish Family Business Awards was that some of the most successful independents are thriving in sectors which have in recent times seen huge consolidation and very tough trading conditions.

Take Barrhead Travel, winner of the large family business and innovation categories. Recent decades have seen a huge decline in the number of independent travel agents operating on the high street.

In contrast, in the most difficult economic environment in living memory, Barrhead has been growing at a rapid pace, and delivering profits on the back of this expansion.

Crucial to its expansion is the information technology system which it has built itself, and is now looking at selling to third parties.

Then there is Dom Maguire, who has built up Glasgow-based funeral director Anderson Maguire and was recognised for his outstanding contribution to the family business sector. He operates in a sector which has also seen major consolidation over the years, and the growth of big national chains.

Crieff Hydro, winner of the large rural family business category, is a fine example of a long-established firm which continues to ensure it adapts to the changing times under the watchful eye of the latest generation in charge.

Like Barrhead, Crieff has continued to thrive in recent years in spite of the huge pressures put on consumers by the worst economic downturn since the 1930s and the UK Government's relentless austerity programme.

In the same sector, the Auchrannie resort on the Isle of Arran, recognised for its commitment to the community, is a stunning example of what can be achieved from a standing start in a relatively short time. Founded in 1989, Auchrannie is now not only a very sizeable resort but provides vital employment in an island economy, as well as key community facilities such as a swimming pool and a hall for sports including indoor bowls, tennis and badminton.

Much of the discussion about the explosion of online retailing focuses on the likes of Amazon.

However, in Kelso, a business founded in 1929 has seized the online opportunity. Country clothing retailer A Hume, recognised for customer service excellence, has developed a cutting-edge website, which has enabled access to new customers and helped ensure it continues to thrive.

There were many other independents in the Scottish Family Business Awards which also had great stories to tell, such as Stag Bakeries on Lewis, which is exporting to China and won the small/medium rural family business category.

So, what can we learn from the success of these businesses?

The lessons are refreshingly simple.

These are businesses that have taken decisions for the long term. They have treated their customers as individuals to be served, and are rightly proud of the service they deliver. They are also embedded in the communities in which they operate. We must never under-estimate the huge contribution these businesses make to local communities.

Mr Maguire is a fine example of someone who, quietly, does a great deal to help people in the community.

And the executives and staff at Auchrannie, as well as providing crucial community facilities which are particularly valuable to islanders in the dark days of winter, spend time engaging with schools and providing work experience for youngsters.

These are examples of true corporate social responsibility in practice.

So, while we might lament the decline in the number of independent operators, we should also celebrate the success of those who continue to thrive, recognising the huge contribution they make to communities, and the fact they make the world a more interesting place.

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