Spotlight On… Paul Uppal

Paul Uppal has many years’ experience of running his own business, as well as being a Member of Parliament, and in 2017 the Government announced that he was to be appointed the first Small Business Commissioner (SBC). This month we spoke to Paul to find out how his new role unites his business and political experience, and how working closely with the IOEE will help him to further support SMEs in his new role.

Created by the Enterprise Act 2016, the SBC is an independent public body that covers the whole of the UK – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – and it is part of a package of measures to tackle late payment and unfavourable payment practices in the private sector, and enable significant positive changes to be made. Paul says:

“There are three key elements of the role. Firstly, the SBC will signpost small businesses to existing support systems out there. Secondly, it will assist in the resolving of payment issues between small business suppliers and their larger customers. Thirdly – and probably the most interesting point – it will really champion small businesses out there, and that’s what I’m really excited to be in the position to do.”

Paul graduated from Warwick University with a degree in Politics and Sociology, going on to run his own small business in the construction and real estate sector for over 20 years, before he became a politician; an experience that he feels will enhance his role as the SBC. Paul says:

“I do think that the public perception is that a lot of people in business transition into politics – but in my experience, that was incredibly rare. I actually found that there aren’t that many politicians who’ve got a genuine business background; it was certainly something that I noticed in my time in Parliament. When I first saw the role of SBC, I thought that it was something where I could really make a positive contribution, as I could bridge the gap between the two: I can bring the political side to the business field, and my business experience to the political field, and really combine both to the benefit of SMEs.”

It’s through Paul’s experience of running a business that he learnt first-hand the benefits of mentoring and, having been the mentee in the past, he is now going to use his position to give others the same positive mentoring experience:

“There’s so much information out there for small businesses to access, but sometimes, when you’re in the thick of setting up your own business, you can’t see the woods for the trees. I want this to be an organisation that helps to guide people in the right direction. The emotional side of starting a business can get pushed into the background, and nobody really mentions how isolating and exhausting it can be, but it’s just as important to consider. Of course, there are lots of pluses and it’s empowering and you’re in charge of your own destiny, but there are minuses too and it can be very challenging. When I started out I had two young kids and lost count of the times I made fish fingers and beans and tried to get a couple of phone calls in whilst they watched a video – but that is just the reality of it a lot of the time!

“I was very lucky when I first set up my own business as I had strong mentors, which was a hugely helpful aspect in terms of me just getting through those difficult first few years. It can be very stressful and lonely and you have to take risks, so you have many moments when you’re wondering if you’re doing the right thing. For me, my Dad was actually my biggest mentor, and he has the experience of running a business in East Africa. That’s really what I see as the SBC – being a sort of mentor to small businesses, especially micro businesses, and it’s my plan and ambition to deliver that level of support.”

Paul also strongly believes that failure is part of the process of finding success when setting up your own business, and that the community support and awareness of other start-ups going through the same experiences will help to motivate and inspire SMEs on their journeys:

“It’s probably the case that you’re not a real entrepreneur until you have fallen on your face a few times – which I did spectacularly! You have to get through failure to become the polished article, and it makes you more worldly wise and adds to your skill set in the long-run – however, it’s a painful thing to go through, so knowing that other entrepreneurs are going through the same thing helps keep that entrepreneurial spirit high when it feels challenging.”

At the beginning of 2018, the IOEE and the SBC united to increase the outreach to entrepreneurs even further, and Paul tells us what this relationship means to him and his role moving forward:

“As the Small Business Commissioner, what I firstly want to do is raise our profile, so that entrepreneurs and small businesses know we are here to support them. I’d like to have more conversations with businesses and IOEE members to develop a greater understanding of what people need and further look at what we can offer them. So, in a sense, this could be more of an appeal: If there are entrepreneurs out there who feel that they are struggling with their supply chain, it is our statutory duty to not do anything to materially damage somebody who comes to us with a complaint – we exist, we’re on the side of entrepreneurs and enterprise, and we want to talk to you, have a genuine candid conversation, and we’re here to support you and make a real difference.”