Accountancy firm Azets has launched its inaugural SME Barometer findings.

Financial health, adapting business models and employee wellbeing were at the top of the priority list for businesses in the south west, and Brexit remains firmly on the agenda, where it was named as the third biggest threat.

The research, which surveyed 760 Azets SME clients across the UK and the Nordics (401 in the UK), revealed that 74% of south west-based clients feel positive about the UK’s economic outlook over the next 12 months, in comparison to 59% in the north east, north west and Yorkshire and Humberside.

There are further positive signs for regional SME growth and jobs, with just under half (48%) expecting to invest in their business over the next year and 43% intending to increase their employee headcount within the same time frame. Overall, the future for UK SMEs looks bright with 87% saying they expect to be trading in a year’s time – 56% predict a rise in profit compared to just 6% saying they’re unlikely to be trading and 7% were unsure.

As the UK went into lockdown last year, the Government stepped in to support businesses during the pandemic. On balance across the UK, SMEs felt well supported (71%).

David Owens, south regional CEO of Azets, said: “There is a robust level of optimism across the SME community and the investment and recruitment intentions are very encouraging. Hopefully this positive outlook in the south west will further encourage other businesses to look towards full recovery as well as encouraging entrepreneurialism, which in term will in turn bring employment increases.”

Other key findings from the report:

  • UK SMEs ranked (in order) their business models, the economy and international trade as their top three opportunities.
  • Financial health, adapting their business models and employee wellbeing were ranked as the top three priorities by UK SMEs.
  • 73% of UK SMEs with staff on furlough intend to bring back all staff from furlough.
  • 71% of UK SMEs have felt well supported by the government during the pandemic.
  • Only 20% of UK SMEs intend to borrow over the next year.
  • 34% of UK SME business leaders say they have a poor work/life balance with 30% saying they spend over 13 hours a day working on or thinking about their business.
  • UK SMEs risk being left behind in the race to net zero with sustainability and net zero commitments ranking ninth out of 11 in terms of priorities for the next 12 months.