Confidence among Scotland’s small businesses has fallen in the past three months, while it has soared to a record high in the rest of the UK.
“We need to understand if this fall is a one-off blip or marks the start of a trend,” said Andy Willox, Scottish policy convener for the Federation of Small Businesses.
Colin Borland, the FSB’s head of external affairs in Scotland, said that research conducted by the lobby group and University of Edinburgh suggested that a majority of Scotland’s small businesses were worried about the impact of a Yes vote in this week’s independence referendum.
“Small businesses do see some potential advantages in independence,” he said. “That’s the nature of our members – they’ll look for the positives whatever happens. But if there is a Yes vote, more people highlight risks than opportunities.”
The research found that two-thirds of almost 1,800 small Scottish companies surveyed in April and May believed that independence would affect the day-to-day running of their business. Almost a fifth said the referendum had already influenced a business decision over the previous year.
A number of small business owners who spoke to the Financial Times last week said they had already been affected by the referendum.
“The phones have gone quiet,” said Alan Gemmill, who is based in Perth and manages property as well as a financial advisory firm. “We have noticed in the last few weeks we’ve been trying to sell properties that we rent out there is no interest at all.”
Alastair Macmillan, whose family-owned company west of Glasgow manufactures hydraulic pumps, mainly for export, said he had delayed investment over the past year because of the referendum.
“We’re in uncharted territory here,” he said.
Sir Mike Rake, president of the CBI, Britain’s leading business lobby, who also chairs BT Group, told the FT on Thursday that, while he believed that the “overwhelming majority” of businesses in Scotland wanted a No vote, for some small and medium-sized enterprises the decision was more difficult.
“I’m sure there are people in Scotland who’d like to vote Yes with their heart and No with their head,” he said.
Mr Borland of the FSB said that small businesses had very mixed views on the independence debate.
“The way small businesses take decisions is very different from the way bigger corporates do: it’s round the kitchen table rather than around the board table,” he said.
The FSB’s quarterly Small Business Index hit +41 in the third quarter – up from +39.7 in the second quarter – the first time sentiment has reached this level. But the Scottish Small Business index fell to +26 in the third quarter, down 18 points from the second quarter.
Mr Willox pointed out that the confidence measure was still in positive territory and had been on a broadly upward trajectory. Forty-five per cent of Scottish companies expected their prospects to improve over the next three months, while just under a fifth expected them to deteriorate.
The FSB has 200,000 members in the UK, including 19,000 in Scotland.
The hotel owner
Tanja Lister, originally from Kent, and her partner, French-born Sonia Virechauveix, bought the Kylesku hotel, “as far up as you can go” on the northwest coast of Scotland, in 2009. With eight bedrooms, the business turned over £500,000 last year, and its two owners, who were recently named “Scottish hoteliers of the year”, have doubled their mortgage to add an extension.
Ms Lister believes that a Yes vote would usher in economic uncertainty, with the possibility of higher prices and a drop in tourism.
“People are waiting to see what happens,” she said. “There are lots of hotels up for sale in this area and no one is buying them.”
She is also worried about having taken on additional borrowing. “I had to make a decision about six months ago [on the mortgage] and the polls looked completely different, and the prospect of an independent Scotland looked very remote.”
The construction company boss
Steve Warren is in the process of converting Tod Head lighthouse near Catterline on the coast north of Montrose. He founded his construction business, which has an annual turnover of about £300,000, 25 years ago. It specialises in architectural “one-offs” such as the lighthouse.
He says he is “not in the least bit” worried about the prospect of an independent Scotland. “We are doing fine with no help from banks or government, and I plan to vote Yes,” he said. “I think there is a lot of exaggeration going on, especially doom and gloom coming from Westminster. Life will carry on here without too much trouble.”
His clients, the majority of whom are Scots, work mainly in the oil industry, often abroad in countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. “There’s a lot of work to be done, and it doesn’t matter to me what currency we do it in,” he said. “Longer term, independence would have a positive effect on my business and lifestyle.”
The asset manager
Paisley-born Alan Gemmill set up his financial advisory business five years ago, and now manages £10m of investments for his mainly Scottish clients. Based in Perth, he runs his business from home. He says he is firmly in the No camp, “as are most people in financial services”, and that independence would mean “the middle classes will get absolutely hammered”.
He says his business has already been negatively affected. “There’s been a lot of calls from clients who are very, very worried about what is going to happen to their investments.”
He says his clients are not moving their money, but he is concerned they may be tempted to do so in the event of a Yes vote. “I am worried about it because I have a duty of care to my clients and it’s my business.”
The industrial exporter
Alastair Macmillan started up his business in Port Glasgow in 1984 with backing from his father. It manufactures hydraulic pumps and sells two-thirds of its products outside the UK. The company won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in 2012 and has a £5m yearly turnover. Mr Macmillan says he will have to move the company outside Scotland in the event of a Yes vote.
“Although our roots run very deep here, we do more business in the US or in France than we do in Scotland,” he said.
Mr Macmillan has delayed investments in the past year because of the uncertain future. “The independence thing appeared two years ago as a fluffy grey cloud on the horizon and it’s got blacker and blacker.”
His company provided funds for the fledgling organisation that then became the Better Together campaign, and he spends every weekend campaigning against independence.