Dawn Cranswick: Exit Interview
After 25 years with the Group, our Chief Executive, Dawn Cranswick is moving on to take up a new role as Chief Executive for Economic Development on the island of St Helena, where she will work closely with the Government and private sector to support the island’s economic transformation ambitions.
Susan O’Bey, Chief Secretary for St Helena Government, comments on Dawn’s appointment in her new role, “This is an exciting time to be living and working on St Helena. We recently saw the launch of commercial air services to the Island and we want to take full advantage of the opportunities that this opens up for us, to help local businesses develop and grow. Dawn’s experience of working with small businesses will be hugely beneficial to supporting economic development on St Helena, as it comes at a time of significant change when new opportunities should arise as a result of improved access to and from the island, particularly within the Tourism & Hospitality Sector.
“A key focus of ESH is working to develop small business owners, shifting the footprint of employment from that of a predominantly government-focused or supported to an enterprise led economy. Dawn’s new staff team will ensure local policy and processes are creating a business-enabling environment, and also that entrepreneurs have access to investment capital, skills base, commercial premises and other physical resources they need in order to operate effectively.”
Dawn comments, “I have been privileged to work for PNE Group for most of my career, and during that time I’ve seen many changes – however one of the great strengths of the Group is its ability to evolve and thrive as an organisation, and I’m very proud to have played a role in that.”
In the following interview, Dawn reflects on her time with PNE Group, which has included the launch of several ground-breaking enterprise projects and significant international impact.
You started work at PNE Group in 1990, how have you seen the responsibilities and challenges of enterprise organisations change over that time?
Since I first joined PNE Group, the infrastructure around helping people to start and grow businesses has changed enormously. When I came to the Group there was a significant failure in the market for support to small businesses – in part because there were far fewer small businesses at that time. Enterprise agencies became established in the early 1980s, and PNE Group was one of the UK’s early movers, helping to address a north east England economy that was suffering from a collapse of the traditional job-creating industries that had employed most of the working population.
The economy was shifting, and major employers in sectors such as shipbuilding, mining, heavy manufacturing were all shedding employment in alarming numbers. PNE Group was established by its founders to help local people with entrepreneurial potential to consider business start-up and self-employment. It’s important to remember that the social and economic landscape was very different then – there’s a saying that ‘the past is another country’, and we can only imagine how difficult it must have been for someone who had expected to work for the same company their whole working life, to consider working for themselves.
Since the 1980s, and especially since 2000, the growth in the number of small businesses in the UK has been very significant; in 2000 there were 3.5 million businesses in the UK, but this had increased to 5.7 million by 2017 – 96% of which are micro-businesses that employ fewer than ten people. With these micro-businesses accounting for around 33% of all employment in 2017, it’s clear that smaller businesses have contributed to the restructuring of the UK economy.
This growth has helped to create a ‘normalising’ of enterprise in the UK, and there is evidence that a proportion of graduates now expect to work for themselves at some point during their career; we’ve also seen some larger businesses attempting to emulate a small business mindset to build creativity and innovation in their teams.
In parallel, there have been explosive changes in technology. At its most basic level, this means that anyone thinking of starting a business can search the internet for information on their business idea, their potential market size, competitors they’ll face, and a mountain of advice on what to do, and the mistakes to avoid once they’ve started their business. We take this for granted now, but this availability of information means that enterprise agencies have become increasingly sophisticated, as many of the questions an entrepreneur or business owner is likely to have can be answered while sitting at their laptop.
The normalising of enterprise, and the increase in numbers of small businesses, has coincided with a reduction in the amount of public funding available to support entrepreneurs. Whilst investment for strong small businesses is more readily available than ever before – including from crowdfunding platforms – funding to support enterprise agencies to help those small businesses has reduced dramatically, and the strong agencies that have survived and thrived, including PNE Group, have done so because we’ve become more entrepreneurial ourselves.
Because the vast majority of small businesses are very small, either sole traders or micro-businesses, they have limited resources and frequently need to collaborate, and either buy in, or partner with, other businesses to access the capacity or wider skills base that larger entities enjoy. One definite change is that the sheer numbers of small businesses have ensured that markets have developed to service their needs, so that most viable businesses can access affordable legal advice, business banking, book-keeping services or business premises if they need them.
One feature we’re seeing more recently, is an increase in necessity entrepreneurs, who are starting a business because their other options are very limited. Whilst opportunity entrepreneurs will start a business because they have spotted a gap in the market, or they have a passion or an idea that they want to exploit, necessity entrepreneurs come at it from the opposite point of view and will often select a business idea because it’s the only one that fits their circumstances and resources. Of course, some businesses started by necessity entrepreneurs do succeed and thrive, but the amount of support they need in the early days to help them get their business off the ground, and ensure survival, can be intense, and this has implications for the responsibilities of enterprise support organisations like PNE Group.
However, we’ve been fortunate in PNE Group to have great staff and a hugely supportive board, and this, coupled with our strong reputation and entrepreneurial ability, has meant we’ve increased in strength over the years.
What have been the most valuable experiences working with PNE Group has enabled, and what impact are you most proud of?
Since I’ve worked at PNE Group for so long, its hard to identify just one valuable experience – I’ve learned so much from the people and organisations that I’ve engaged with over the years and its all been useful (even the experiences that I may not have enjoyed at the time!).
I’ve led and participated in numerous projects and client assignments over the years, and I’ve been lucky to travel extensively as part of the Group’s international enterprise development for aid agencies and corporate clients. For example, I’ve trained people to deliver enterprise programmes in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean; I’ve been privileged to support a group of de-mining engineers in Cambodia to strengthen their business model so they could focus on training local people to work safely in mined areas; and, I’ve stayed in a remote tourist lodge in the Okavango Delta whilst monitoring African tourist projects. There has rarely been a dull day at the office!
When I took over as Chief Executive in 2011, I inherited a strong organisation with a very proud history of achievement, and I’m proud to be leaving PNE in an even stronger financial position, more efficient and with an amazing staff team that competes at the highest level across so many disciplines.
During your time on the PNE Group leadership team, there has been growing conversation around empowering women in business. As the first female CEO of the organisation, what do you think needs to be done to better support women as leaders and entrepreneurs?
Before I came to PNE I had jobs in two sectors that were very male-dominated at the time (steel and timber), so when I arrived at PNE the culture was completely different.
The staff team was pretty much 50/50 men to women, and although the management roles were mainly filled by men, I certainly found PNE accessible to developing and promoting women. The organisation is probably about 75/25 women to men now – which hasn’t been intentional at all – although I do feel very strongly that women should be offered equality of opportunity. I suspect that a majority of businesses now pay broadly similar pay rates for the same job, but getting the opportunity to progress to the highest level is still a real problem in many sectors; when I read comments in the press from some boards saying that the female candidates didn’t have enough experience it makes my blood boil – no human being walking into a boardroom for the first time has experience – they learn, and we all have a responsibility to ensure that candidates with potential get access to opportunities, whoever they are.
What will you be doing in your role as Chief Executive of Economic Development for St Helena government?
I’m taking over as Chief Executive of Enterprise St Helena (ESH) the organisation that is responsible for economic development on the island. We’ll be focused on development of the key sectors – including sustainable tourism, agriculture and fishing. The island is very remote, so I’m sure it won’t be without its challenges, and I’ll have a huge amount to learn, but the contact I’ve had with the government and staff team there so far gives me confidence that it will be a great opportunity to contribute something to an amazing, unique place.