A Thames Gateway initiative to promote collaboration among local companies proves a helpful antidote to the economic downturn

East London business entrepreneurs currently suffering sleepless nights and feelings of isolation might well find relief and comfort by joining the Centre of Engineering and Manufacturing Excellence’s (CEME) Mentoring Network. Although not an entirely new concept it seems to be succeeding where other networks have failed and according to its members is providing local companies with invaluable peer support.

And in the current difficult economic downturn, small companies need all the help they can get. Set up in 2008 and funded by Barking and Dagenham Enterprise, there are three networks centred on different local sectors - automotive, electrical and construction.

Although the groups are facilitated, the members decide the agenda. “The network really benefits from the fact that it is driven by its own members and the issues they see as priorities, rather than having to respond to an external imposed agenda,” says Chris Oliver, managing director of AJC Wilsons Bodyshop (vehicles repairs).

Steve Smith managing director of Boleyn Body Shop Accident and Repair Centre agrees: “Some of the previous networks I have been involved with have been a waste of time, but with the mentoring network, the coordinator asks us what we want and helps us to share and build on the ideas coming out.”

Vernon Parker company secretary of Harding Bros Electrical also believes the network is different. “There is a real advantage in being able to discuss ideas with like minded companies from a similar environment and locality, who are facing similar situations. By focusing on the agreed priority issues we are able to make the solutions more relevant to our company.”

It also creates opportunity for business development with local companies. CEME is looking at increasing these business development opportunities by creating cross-sector meetings as well as broadening out membership to include the whole supply chain; further helping boost local trade.

Nevertheless, the relatively small size of the network is perceived as advantage. As Parker says it means you have a real chance to get to know people, share ideas and look at things from a different angle; “The network offers a level playing field and the chance to consider realistic solutions that are implementable.”

In spite of some initial worries about sharing information with potential competitors it seems the network has managed to create a level of trust. “Rather than treat each other as competitors, because we feel comfortable, we act well as a team voluntarily sharing views and ideas that benefit all.” comments Smith.

“The meetings have a really good relaxed atmosphere which encourages companies to talk to each other, and it is a real eye opener to find out how other companies approach things,” agrees Steve Johnson owner manager of Johnsons Drainage Services.

Smith, for one, has benefited from the opportunity to step back and think about his business from the customer point of view. “We did some role play on what our customers wanted from us; and as a result we are taking a much more proactive approach to our clients and PR generally.”

Recent winner of one of Barking & Dagenham’s business awards AJC Wilson has also gained from the experience. Oliver says “I have been able to take on board a number of ideas including a whole package of customer loyalty initiatives. The group has also been looking at the training and development needed for middle managers. With CEME capturing the views and needs of network members, we have a better chance to influence local training providers to deliver the training we need.”

For more information contact Chris Burr at CEME chris.burr@ceme.co.uk