Express & Star Green Shoots: £4m fund helps secure 600 jobs

From burgers to sponges and aeroplane parts to coffee beans – these are just some of the great West Midlands manufacturers which have been able to grow thanks to an innovative investment scheme.

Green Shoots Plus, led by the Express & Star/Shropshire Star and the University of Wolverhampton, has seen more than £4 million of grants handed to 65 small or medium-sized businesses.

The scheme has help create and protect 600 jobs and seen £11.2m of private sector investment ploughed into the region.

Businesses have used the grants to buy new equipment and new premises or to 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 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.

MORE: The Green Shoots project has the backing of Government ministers

Professor Ian Oakes, the deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton, said: “We are delighted that the partnership with the Express & Star/Shropshire 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 new 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 which 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,” he said.

“The university 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 helped by the scheme is Oldbury-based Gilca Ltd which specialises in making foam products. Established in 1986, it employs 26 workers – six of whom have been taken on thanks to Green Shoots – and is Britain’s biggest manufacturer of cosmetic sponges.

Its products range from foam packaging to a medical sponge which surgeons use to practise on. With its grant it has bought new machinery, including a water jet cutter which has allowed it to meet demands from the automotive sector.

The business is also looking at starting a second shift to increase its output of more than one million items a year.

Lez Coupland, its UK sales manager, said: “The Green Shoots funding has helped us immensely.

"It is hard out there for businesses and this has certainly kept us in the automotive sector which was likely to have looked to China if we couldn’t have met the demand.

“It was crucial for the business that we kept that contract. Green Shoots has been a lifeline.

"We are very proud of being a West Midlands business and a British business – this helps us in our ambition to grow.”

The Halesowen-based Stirchley Burger Company was awarded a grant to buy a new machine to make burgers.

The business, which was founded in 2003 by Carl Bishop and Mark Austin, supplies the wholesale market and it was keen to expand into manufacturing gourmet burgers which is a growing market.

It supplies the entire UK, as well as exporting to Greece and Spain.

Mr Bishop said: “The machine we had previously was old and broke down on a regular basis which meant there was a lot of downtime which obviously costs the business money.

“The new machine is 20 per cent more efficient and allows us to produce a better quality burger. Gourmet burgers are a big market with more people eating out and virtually every pub or club now doing food.

“The new machine has allowed us to produce gourmet burgers.

“Without the grant from Green Shoots we were at risk of falling behind with demands from the customer.”

The grant also meant the firm could take on two new members of staff with up to another two possible new recruits.

Mr Bishop said: “If we had to finance the machine on our own it may have taken several more years for us to get the money to do so.

“The grant has allowed us to bring forward the investment and create new jobs and grow the business,” he said.

Adams Enclosures, in Brownhills, was given grants from two rounds of Green Shoots.

It has allowed the company, which designs and makes metal enclosures for switchgear systems, to carry out product testing and to purchase new machinery.

Technical director Simon Banks said: “Green Shoots has allowed us to move up a level. We have invested in machinery and testing and now can offer a more complete service to our customers. The impact has been massive.”

TCL Packaging, 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 firm 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 of more than £8m a year.

Another beneficiary was the 3D Measurement Company, Bridgnorth, which was handed a £33,000 grant to help install a temperature-controlled automated measuring cell to allow it to expand its revenues.

Express & Star editor Keith Harrison said: “This has been a fantastic campaign and it has been an absolute pleasure to work in collaboration with the university and the Regional Growth Fund.

Rewarding

“Far more important has been the impact it has had on our local communities. It is extremely rewarding to see jobs being created and protected by this initiative.

“Employment continues to be one of our biggest challenges in the Black Country and Staffordshire.

“We are delighted to have played a part in helping to stimulate the local economy.”

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 Express & Star and its sister paper, the Shropshire 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 fund has invested an impressive £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 £16b.

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 which were struggling to get finance.

Chris Leggett, brand and communications manager for Express & Star/Shropshire Star publisher Midland News Association, is part of the expert panel which has selected businesses for funding.

He said: “For many businesses, particularly in the early days of the initiative during the recession, there was a gap for funding.

“The companies which have benefitted 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.

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