16 Apr 2012

SME owners facing retirement struggle

Prof Rebecca Taylor, Dean of the OU Business School

Prof Rebecca Taylor, Dean of the OU Business School

More than a third (39%) of SME owners aged over 65 still do not know when they will retire, according to the Quarterly Survey of Small Business in Britain(*), produced by The Open University ( with support from ACCA (The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) and Barclays business banking.

Half the UK’s SME owners report that they have changed their retirement and succession plans as a result of the economic downturn. 42% of owners are expecting to carry on running their businesses for longer, delaying their retirement, while 7% expect to close or sell their business sooner. More than half (59%) of those which expect to close early report that their turnover was down over the past year. Despite the financial crisis, almost half (47%) of owners are still confident they will be able to retire by the age of 65, but 18% expect to retire between the ages of 66 and 70 and 11% believe they will be running their business beyond their 70th birthday.

Pensions have been highlighted as a concern, with 28% of SME owners expecting to struggle in retirement. This proportion increases to 35% for the smallest businesses and drops to 20% for medium-sized firms.
When asked what their plans would be should they be unable to work due to illness or injury, 16% of respondents said that a lack of continuity arrangements would mean they would have to close their business. This increased to 48% among business owners who work alone. Three quarters (44%) of owners felt they could rely on fellow owners or staff in such circumstances. More than half (53%) admitted they had no insurance protection against illness or injury that would make them unable to work.

Professor Rebecca Taylor, Dean of The Open University Business School said: “The economic downturn has created a number of serious challenges for Britain’s SME owners. Our latest survey findings suggest that many owners, particularly those with smaller businesses, are having to make significant changes as they plan for retirement and succession. While some owners may never have intended to give up the business, many now expect to work for much longer than they had envisaged.”

Sue Hayes, Barclays business banking, said: “It is never too early for business owners to start planning their retirement. These research figures show that, especially in the current economic environment, the need for retirement planning advice is even greater, particularly for those who are nearing or beyond retirement age. Our business relationship managers are available to provide support and advice to older entrepreneurs so that their businesses can continue to thrive when the time comes to hand over the reins.”

The survey also examined SME performance and prospects, and asked owners and managers about the major problems they were facing. While some SMEs remain optimistic, the picture is mixed with large variations by sector and region. SMEs in the East Midlands reported the best sales performance (+24%) for the sixth time in the last seven surveys. It was a different story for their neighbours in the West Midlands, which saw significant deterioration in the sales balance (from +20% to just +4%), and were the only region to report a negative sales expectation balance (-1%) for the first quarter of 2012. Scotland’s SMEs were the most optimistic, with a balance of +19% expecting an increase in sales. Yorkshire and the Humber’s SME owners reported a marked sales improvement from -7% to +14%, and they rated themselves as the most entrepreneurial region in the country. The East of England rated itself as the least entrepreneurial region.

As in every survey in the past year, retailers reported the worst sales performance (-16% compared with -6%), cutting jobs far more often in this survey. Manufacturers, wholesalers and agricultural firms saw the best sales performance. SMEs once again cited ‘economic climate and demand’ as their top problem (59%), as per the last four years, followed by ‘cashflow, payment or debtors’ (31%) and competition (31%).

Notes to Editors

Open University Business School
The enterprise research team at the Open University Business School publishes the Quarterly Survey of Small Business, which was founded in 1984 as the first national, regular survey of small firms in the UK. It is edited by Dr Richard Blundel and Emeritus Professor Colin Gray; the researcher and writer is Andy McCann. This report is the 109th in the series. Single printed issues of the report can be purchased for £55, or £200 for an annual subscription. A PDF version of the report is available to download free from The Open University website. For more information, please contact Julie Sullivan at: or visit

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