By Kelly Henaughen

NOT everyone involved in the rural sector does so in what you could describe as an ‘obvious’ way. Not everyone is a farmer, or even directly involved solely with farmers, and it is often these individuals that can be a tad over looked when it comes to recognising the level and importance of their input in the world of agriculture.

Jackie Brierton works for GrowBiz, an independent, community-based organisation with charitable status, providing support to anyone starting, running or growing a business in rural Perth and Kinross.

Jackie has more than 30 years experience in business and enterprise and, in addition to establishing and running a number of businesses, she has been CEO of three enterprise development agencies including the UK’s first women’s enterprise centre, Wellpark. She is passionate about helping people to realise their potential through enterprise, and was awarded an MBE for services to enterprise in 2008.

She took the time to tell The Scottish Farmer a bit about what it is that GrowBiz does, what her role as its chief executive entails, and how they play their part in helping rural businesses progress and flourish in rural Perthshire.

Were you brought up in a rural area?

In a way. I lived near Methven in Perthshire when I was a child, before my family then moved to Perth.

After a number of years in Edinburgh, I spent two years living and working in the Highlands. My job was aimed at providing business training to some of the most remote community enterprises in Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles, so I certainly saw plenty of rural Scotland in that role.

I’ve spent the last 27 years living in rural Perthshire, around three miles from Coupar Angus.

What does your job entail?

My role with GrowBiz is very varied and wide-ranging. It includes supporting our team of contractors; providing one-to-one coaching for new and growing businesses; liaising with funders and partners; facilitating GrowBiz events; and promoting the rural economy at every opportunity!

No two days are the same, that’s for sure!

What does the ‘average day’ mean for you?

I don’t think an ‘average day’ really exists – every day brings fresh challenges ¬¬– but our priority is making sure that anyone who contacts GrowBiz looking for support or advice is connected as soon as possible with one of our enterprise facilitators.

In the last two years, we’ve worked with more than 700 rural businesses – from a very diverse range of sectors – and facilitated 220 events. These events have incorporated things like peer learning, mentoring and networking, so there’s never a dull moment and you meet a great selection of brilliant people along the way.

How can people make use of GrowBiz?

Anyone living in rural Perth and Kinross can contact us for a one-to-one session with one of our team – or attend any of our peer learning or networking events – all free of cost.

They can also ask to be matched to one of our trained mentors. We have a huge range of mentors involved with us, so we have someone who can help with anyones, or any business’ needs.

We also have two creative services peer groups ¬– East Perthshire and Strathearn – a Creative Care project and a joint project with Scottish Enterprise which works with adventure tourism businesses in Highland Perthshire

What can be done to help rural businesses grow?

We aim at helping rural businesses to connect and collaborate and, overall, recognise that the majority of rural enterprises are micro and want to grow on their own terms.

We aim to help point rural businesses in the direction of better access to finance with more start-up grants which are available in local areas but that people are not always aware of.

Our local authority, Perth and Kinross Council, recently put more than £200,000 into a micro-enterprise fund for rural businesses, and dozens of enterprises were able to get small grants of up to £5000, for funding things such as essential equipment, materials, training or marketing. Cash injections like these have made a great difference to their business planning and ability to grow.

What problems to you come across in rural business?

The problems that rural businesses encounter can be very varied. Sometimes, there is a general lack of confidence surrounding the business, and a sense of isolation which has a negative impact on rural business owners, but these can be overcome by providing opportunities to come together with other enterprises, or with one-to-one support from an enterprise facilitator or mentor.

Many of our clients are women, with great skills and talents, but who often need to have more belief in themselves. Our monthly women’s enterprise network meetings are very popular and provide great peer support and encouragement and opportunities to sell and promote their products and services.

How have you seen the rural economy evolve in your time at GrowBiz?

I think the biggest change – which needs to continue and develop – is a recognition of the value of the rural economy to Scotland PLC, and that it is about much more than agriculture, forestry and land-based industry.

Improved digital connectivity is one of the factors which has led to innovation and diversity in our rural economy and this can only develop further in the future. The Scottish Government is putting more emphasis on the value of the rural economy and the opportunities for it to grow – and that can only be a good thing.

What problems Do rural businesses face that urban ones perhaps do not?

One of the biggest problems is undoubtedly – despite ongoing improvements - the continuing lack of access to high-speed broadband for too many rural businesses – combined with lack of 4G or basic mobile connectivity.

This is intensely frustrating for rural communities generally and is an unfair disadvantage in comparison to most urban areas. Combined with lack of infrastructure such as transport links, adequate housing and social services, rural businesses have to be even more resilient and committed to succeed.

Rural businesses have these hills to climb before they even get started, and they are just not problems that you have to think about dealing with if you live in a built up area, or a town or city.

What do you view as the biggest issues facing people in rural areas in the current political climate?

Like everywhere, uncertainty and a lack of information is affecting confidence among individuals and businesses in rural areas.

Although many small businesses in rural areas don’t feel they’ll be affected by Brexit, whatever the outcome, the reality is that no-one really knows what the impact will actually be. We’re already seeing the problems of labour shortages in our fruit farms and hospitality industry locally.

Brexit simply cannot be ignored or underestimated in any walk of life or area of business.

Small businesses in rural area may not feel directly or immediately effected by the result of the ongoing saga of Brexit negotiations, but the reality is that it will have an effect on them at some stage and in some way, whether they gear up to combat it or not. Being prepared is always preferable to not being prepared!

How do you spend your spare time?

An interesting question! With a very busy job, voluntary board activities and carer responsibilities, I have very little spare time to myself, but I do love walking my two black Labradors and I have a season ticket for St Johnstone (someone has to support them!)

What are your plans for your future?

Plans for the future from a GrowBiz perspective, are to keep doing what we can for rural businesses.

We have ongoing plans to keep developing what we’re doing and to help as many rural enterprises as possible.

As well as this, ‘digitising’ what we do is important, so we can support rural businesses in other areas.

On the more personal front, I want to fulfil long-term ambitions to go kayaking, walk the Cateran Trail and to ‘re-learn’ yoga!