A business support organisation is urging small firms to ensure they prepare for weather-related disruptions this winter by drawing up continuity plans. Following the coldest winter for three decades last year, which caused widespread disruption to businesses, forecasters are predicting another harsh, snow-filled winter in the coming months.
Positive Weather Solutions recently said that the winter of 2010/11 was likely to see similarly icy temperatures to last year and more of the 'disruptive snowfall' which hampered deliveries, triggered heating and power failures and left many employees unable to get into work.
According to a YouGov poll, 58% of senior decision-makers at small businesses said their companies suffered as a result of the snow last winter, despite 78% believing their firms were sufficiently prepared.
And nationally, three quarters (74%) of employees were affected by the snow, with more than a quarter (26%) failing to get in to work at all. Crucially, 21% of those surveyed found key suppliers and contacts were unavailable and 26% had to postpone or cancel meetings.
As a result, the Forum of Private Business is urging smaller companies to prepare for any potential adverse weather now by putting in place business continuity plans.
Spokesman Phil McCabe said: "I think it's fair to say that last winter's extreme weather conditions caught out many small business owners.
"A lot of small firms struggled to continue trading as employees failed to make it into work, deliveries were cancelled and freezing temperatures caused heating equipment to fail, leaving their premises unusable.
"We estimated that last winter's snowfalls were costing smaller businesses across the UK around 230 million each day at one point. Obviously, in the current climate, small firms can ill afford a similar expenditure this year so we're urging business owners to think about their contingency plans now to ensure they aren't put out of action by another icy winter."
The Forum is also arguing that smaller firms should consider investing in expert support services to ensure they can continue trading when their premises are hit by extreme weather conditions.
The Forum, which is a not-for-profit organisation, has launched a new business continuity service for its members in an effort to protect them against business 'disasters' such as snow-related problems or floods, burglaries, fires and power cuts.
While small businesses will usually get an insurance payout to cover damage to their property after such an event, they are highly vulnerable to the steep drop in turnover which often follows as customer records are lost, phone calls and emails go unanswered and clients take their custom elsewhere.
However, the Forum's new service will ensure its members can continue trading through such potentially crippling problems. The AssistPoint service, which is designed especially for small and medium-sized companies, starts at just 240 (+VAT) per year.
In the event of a disaster, AssistPoint would give a smaller business:
The ability to answer phones and make calls, providing reassurance to customers and suppliers;
A ready-made workplace with computers, print, email and fax facilities;
Systems and processes in place in order to continue to trade uninterrupted;
Access to 5GB of data backed up on a PC.
AssistPoint is being provided through a deal between the Forum and partner organisation Smartways Technology a leading IT managed services provider. Thanks to preferential rates, Forum members can access discounts of up to 450 on Smartways' services.
In the event of a major problem, all AssistPoint services are guaranteed to be delivered within one working day and can be activated with a single phone call.
Mr McCabe added: "While lots of conflicting statistics on the issue are banded about, it's fair to say that a high percentage of businesses affected by a major incident like a fire or flood either never re-open or go bust soon after the event.
"This is often not due to the immediate loss of goods and premises, which is usually covered by insurance payouts. It's because the company's inability to resume trading within a short space of time means clients and customers go elsewhere, leading to unsustainable losses and potentially undoing years of hard work spent building the business up.
"Our new service is designed to protect against this risk and make sure that our members can continue trading through virtually anything that's thrown at them."
A Populus poll recently commissioned by the British Insurance Brokers' Association found around half of SMEs believed it would take less than a day for a serious disruption or disaster to have a significant impact on their business.
According to Environment Agency figures, around 185,000 commercial properties are at risk of flooding in England and Wales. The average loss to a business from a flood is thought to be around 25,000, compared to 1,000 for a burglary. The floods in the summer of 2007 affected more than 9,000 businesses, with the costs to each business ranging from around 75,000 to 112,000.
Hardware issues also put countless smaller businesses out of action each year, along with fires, communications failures, power cuts, computer viruses and denial of access to buildings.
AssistPoint is one of a number of new services being provided through the Forum's 'Purchasing Director' solution a collection of specially-discounted products and services designed to save small businesses money across all purchasing decisions.