This year's Top Track 250 – which ranks mid-market private companies with the biggest sales – shows how the UK economy could thrive in a post-Brexit Britain.
In the wake of the EU referendum it’s more important than ever that the whole of the UK — businesses, the public and the voluntary and charity sectors — pulls together to help keep the economy growing.
The challenges are numerous but not insurmountable. They include: public services struggling to meet growing demand with little extra funding; a general distrust of business and the City; a need for more business innovation, investment and longer-term thinking; and a requirement that we substantially increase our trade with the rest of the world.
The prize, if we can crack these challenges, is a significant one.
Work by the Centre for Economics and Business Research for Grant Thornton found that if Britain increased its exports by 17% to match Germany’s 45% of GDP, we would see our economy expand by £84 billion.
More broadly, if we can unlock the economic potential of every region of the UK to match the output-per-worker achieved across the G7 group of economies, the UK would be boosted by a staggering £479 billion by 2025.
It’s vital that business makes its voice heard in the debate about how to achieve this. We interviewed 14 Top Track 250 company leaders about their priorities. They have a legitimate right to influence our thinking: this year’s Top Track 250 companies support over a third of a million jobs and generate combined sales of £58 billion, the equivalent of 3.1% of GDP.
They should be congratulated on their success — sales were up an average of 14% and employment by 11%, year-on-year. More than half of the companies trade overseas and a similar proportion have their head office outside London and the southeast of England, creating jobs throughout the UK.
What we can learn from Top Track 250 businesses
There is much we can learn from this year's Top Track 250 businesses
Bradford’s Redfern Travel (No 69), for example, is helping the public sector become more efficient. It has saved taxpayers £15m since 2011 by reducing the civil service’s travel costs. In London, Global Radio (No 64), home to Heart FM and LBC, is one of a number of Top Track 250 companies collaborating with universities to provide the next generation of graduates with relevant skills.
From its head office in Poole, hand-made cosmetics firm Lush (No 43) illustrates how to combine integrity and ethics with innovation, international expansion and long-term success. It refreshes up to 30% of its natural soaps and fragrances each year, tailoring them to its different markets.
Two-thirds of its £326.5m sales in 2015 were overseas. Its ethical stance on issues such as animal testing helps it engage with employees and customers alike, and it is not shy about reflecting their views, providing a powerful platform for popular campaigns such as opposing fracking.
Planning for the longer-term
What these companies have in common is that they are not simply thinking about profit and loss but planning for the long term.
One vital part of this planning, for any company, is to prioritise innovation. This helps a business respond to longer-term demographic and societal trends — the need for healthier eating in the West, for example, or the expansion of the world’s middle class, particularly in China, India and Africa. Or tackling environmental issues, such as water shortages and air pollution.
Such problem-solving can attract and inspire the next generation of star employees. Look at this year's Top Track 250 list and everyone will find a different company that inspires them. It might be the Falkirk-based firm Alexander Dennis (No 4), which has 900 environmentally friendly, fuel-efficient buses on the roads in Hong Kong.
For my youngest son, it’s McLaren (No 19): yes, boys and fast cars, but the company is not limiting its ambitions and know-how to the narrow niche of road cars and the Formula 1 track. It has a number of partnerships with companies in other industries, such as Glaxo Smith Kline, using its technology to help them become more efficient.
Why we need to create a society and economy that benefits us all
This collaborative, systemic approach is vital. Grant Thornton believes that, for Britain to continue to be successful in the global economy, we need to create a society and economy that benefits us all. We are playing our part in making this happen.
In November we will host Live Labs in Manchester and Reading, where leaders from the private, public, charity and voluntary sectors will address the challenges facing their communities, as well as the specific opportunities to become world-class centres for health and communications technologies.
As Brexit negotiations begin, the trade-offs involved will become clearer. Business must make its voice heard now to ensure an independent Britain works for all of us, shaping a vibrant economy where no-one is left behind.
This article first appeared in The Sunday Times' Top Track 250 supplement on 1 October. You can view the full list of Top Track 250 companies online.