Special Report on Manchester Business School

The word ‘unemployment’ is not one which rates very highly in the vocabulary of Dr Peter Chisnall. His role at MBS is, after all, to make people with sufficient ‘get up and go’ to do just that.

Dr Chisnall is director of the Small Business Development Unit (SBDU), a department which thrives on a string of success stories equal to anywhere else in the school.

The main aims of the SBDU are two-fold – to help fledgling entrepreneurs put sound propositions into viable reality and to develop tailor-made programs for small and medium-sized firms which have come to a full stop after a few years’ trading. Dr Chisnall and his team help them to become bigger, better – and wealthier.

In order to reflect more accurately the aims and ideals of the department, its name was changed last year to SBDU from New Enterprise Centre.

Since then, Dr Chisnall has helped many people up the ladder of commercial success. Such as the man who wanted to start a do-it-yourself garage; another who has established a home for the aged; a woman who now manages a highly recommended ethnic food center; the Irishman who is flourishing with his natural yoghurt and quality ice-cream center; the man who is boss of his own security firm which guards commercial properties; and the man who is planning to open up his very own drift mine with the enthusiastic support of the CEGB.

Dr Chisnall said: ‘We’re not interested in the bucket and ladder man. But if someone comes up to us with what appears to be a sound idea with growth potential, employing up to 20 people within 18 months to two years, then we’re in business. ‘

At present, three experimental programs are running in the SBDU: Business Opportunities Program (BOP), Firm Start (FS) and Tools for Growth (TFG).

BOP covers 18 weeks, takes between 11 to 18 participants and involves 10 non-residential teaching days. In addition, unemployed participants who are mature, experienced executives are attached to small ‘host’ companies in order to provide specific help.

This also gives them an opportunity to exercise their management skills while they are seeking career employment which, in some cases, may well arise from working closely with the companies they are attached to over the three-month period.

Dr Chisnall is proud of his 90 percent-plus success rate of placing executives, redundant or otherwise out of work, in new and remunerative employment. BOP is funded by the regional office of the Manpower Services Commission.

FS is an experimental scheme which has 18 participants and runs over 52 weeks. It is funded nationally by the MSC and promoted by Greater Manchester Economic Development Corporation. It provides a framework within which individuals or prospective business partners seeking to start a new business, or develop one which is in its early stage, can test the feasibility of their ideas.

Each program caters for both men and women who learn not only from experienced MBS faculty and outside experts, but also from one another.

TFG is another pilot program covering a three-year period during which three courses a year will be run, covering a total of 100 participants. The target market is defined as the top management of developing and established small and medium-sized firms, and the course is funded by GMEDC and the European Social Fund.

One of the main lessons it teaches is the management of money and cash flow and, more importantly, where to get it when you have not got it.

In general, MBS is actively seeking the co-operation of large corporations in enterprise training and hopes to extend its activities significantly.

The Economy of Cameroon Today

There are two stories that illustrate the idiosyncrasies of the Cameroon economy.

One concerns a British businessman who came to sell military uniforms. Unable to converse with the Franco-phone staff officers in their own language, he was offensively supercilious. When asked to produce samples, he discovered he had forgotten to bring any. Despite his ignorance and incompetence, the man was given a substantial order.

The other is about a new airport at Bamenda, capital of North-West Province. Completed several months ago, it was a vital staging post for military aircraft flying relief supplies to the victims of last month’s volcanic disaster. But there is no civilian traffic because it has not been officially opened, and no one seems to know when it will be.

Despite the slump in oil prices, Cameroon retains a robust and diverse economy open to quality Western goods and services. But a slow-moving bureaucracy and vestiges of corruption can lead to excessive delays in reaping the rewards.

In the view of Mr Douglas Gray, second secretary at the British Embassy in Yaounde, Cameroon is ‘a commercial accident waiting for business to happen’.

Its budget is the only one in West Africa to increase this year, and is now the biggest of the region’s Francophone states. Income per head is among the highest, and the debt-service ratio one of the lowest, in tropical Africa.

An investment code implemented in 1984 has encouraged new enterprises with technical assistance and eight-year tax concessions.

There is a large and growing elite of young technocrats ready to develop business opportunities. (The unpaved streets of Bamenda are lined with bookshops, each an Aladdin’s Cave of educational and classical African literature.)

Well-diversified agriculture provides a firm base for the economy, ensuring virtual self-sufficiency in food. ‘Plant a walking stick here and it will grow,’ one wit observed.

Yet the economy is slowing, and it is not entirely due to the loss of earnings from offshore oil and a sharp drop in cocoa prices.

One factor, deriving from the peculiar bilingual character of Cameroon, is uncertainty about the sixth Five-Year Plan, which should have been launched last month. It is still to be published, because the English version of the French original has not been completed. Another is that urgency and tight contract schedules are unfamiliar concepts.

President Paul Biya is making determined efforts to eradicate administrative delays, and the corrupt practices for which associates of his predecessor, Mr Ahmadou Ahidjo, were notorious.

When growing irritation about non-payment of bills was brought to his attention earlier this year, Mr Biya promptly released oil funds to clear the backlog.

He is unlikely to stamp out entirely the ubiquitous dash, the discreet payments that grease the wheels of commerce, but high-level corruption is comparatively rare.

‘As soon as you start importing materials for a project, you come across your Mr 10 Per Cents and Mr 12 Per Cents,’ a Swiss engineer confided. ‘But that also happens in Europe, and it’s nothing like as bad here as in some other African states I could mention. ‘

France is by far the biggest trading partner, with 47 per cent of the market, and French advisers in virtually every government department are likely to ensure that it stays that way.

The United States and several West European countries are making inroads, but Britain is lagging well behind with a 3 per cent share, worth some pounds 52 million last year.

According to Mr Gray, the British have only themselves to blame: ‘Others are winning contracts by getting to know their clients and making long-term commitments, while most of our people insist on fast returns on assets. There are boundless opportunities for UK businessmen, providing they invest the required time, effort and patience. ‘

It would be unwise to emulate the behavior of the uniform salesman. The days when influential traders of the Bamileke tribe divined future prospects from giant spiders are long gone.