Leading from the front

Ana Botín, CEO of Santander UK, considers how the lessons she learned as a small business owner have shaped her approach to banking and inspired her to find new ways to support SMEs.

The view from the other side

I was a small business owner for three years and I learned a lot. Being on the other side of the table you realise how important banks can be to small companies, so when I moved back into banking my main concern was not to lose that insight into, and understanding of, the challenges facing SMEs. And the lessons I learned as a small business owner are equally true in banking.

Be clear about who you are and where you are going

With clear direction and clear plans you can achieve anything. Nothing is impossible if you know where you are going and how you are going to get there.

And it’s about how you do it, not just what you do: it is very important in any business to have a clear objective of what you stand for and what you are known for. At Santander UK we base our business on understanding what customers need and by building customer relationships. If we understand how our customers’ business models work it makes it a lot easier for us to help them.

Focus on the areas where you can add the most value

You can’t be all things to all people so you focus on the areas where you can have the most impact and add the most value.

99% of the UK’s businesses are SMEs and they generate 59% of employment, so now more than ever we need to focus on companies which are growing from 10 to 20 to 60 employees – that part of the SME market is where you get the most job creation.

Our Breakthrough programme is an innovative way of working with fast-growth UK SMEs and helping them achieve the next stage of their growth journey. It’s not just about offering financial assistance, which we do, but about using the skills and resources we have as a global bank, supporting businesses to overcome the challenges they encounter when trying to grow their business.

Breaking through overseas

I think UK companies need to broaden their export horizons. At the moment they are too reliant on Europe, so we can help them look at other foreign markets, particularly the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries, which the UK has previously been poor to make use of.

Through Breakthrough International we take advantage of Santander’s global presence to take fast-growth SMEs to the markets they are considering entering. We help them understand and overcome the challenges of exporting to these countries, and make contacts with potential suppliers, agents and customers.

Our latest trade mission took a group of businesswomen to Boston and New York. They represented a wide range of sectors from engineering to food and drink, and were all at different stages of the business cycle. But what they had in common was an entrepreneurial spirit, a belief in their product and the will and ambition to want to grow.

They have the factors for success and what we do is use our skills, our people and our contacts to help businesses like this grow and create employment.

I believe this is what banks should be doing – as it not only supports the success of the businesses we help, but it also adds value to the communities they operate in. The measure of success now is that other institutions do what we are doing, but we must stay at the front, leading, doing new things and doing better for our customers and non-customers.

To find more about the Breakthrough International trade mission read our article If I can make it there...

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John Carroll - Helping businesses achieve International success. Head of Product Management & International Business, Santander UK