Lee himself moved to Balfron to run his e-commerce business around 15 years ago. He wanted to run a successful business, while making time for family life. As a serial entrepreneur with a mind teeming with ideas and a keen eye on opportunities through change, originally, sold outdoor bins to cope with changes in behaviours due to the smoking ban. He’s now developed his e-commerce platforms to allow a range of microbusinesses with their own websites under one overarching distribution system. While trade was good, Lee knew he needed more space to be able to expand and fulfil orders. What he wouldn’t compromise, was his work-life balance and was set against getting back into the cycle of commuting to work, even to the nearby city of Stirling.
Living locally, he knew the number of diverse businesses operating under similar circumstances and with similar aspirations; to live and work locally, and create a sustainable community for years to come. These businesses were already operating in back gardens, sheds, outhouses, back bedrooms and garages.
Lee realised that a number of small but growing businesses local to Balfron needed to take their business out of home premises, but there was nowhere to expand to in their own community. Having an open and honest meeting with Stirling Council’s Economic Development Team he explained the challenges of remaining a truly local business while wanting grow the business and employ more people from within the community.
Lee undertook a survey of over 40 businesses in and around Balfron to ascertain what their future needs would be. Projects involving shared office space and hot desking were successful in other areas, however it was clear from the feedback from Balfron businesses that a place to plug in a laptop, while useful, wasn’t what they needed. Overwhelmingly the responses showed that they needed more space to work and store goods, workshops to create products, and the means to distribute. What they wanted more than anything was production space.
Armed with this information he went back to Stirling Council. He committed to the finance and project management, while working in partnership across the Council to get the support and navigation to make sure this project could deliver.
With a central Balfron location, a former Stirling Council depot in Dunkeld Court was identified as an ideal space.
Over the last 2 years, 6 new small businesses units have been built and 2 existing buildings have been refurbished and created with spaces for parking, storage, tool lock ups – all practical ways to help businesses expand and get products to market. Along with these everyday benefits, the units also had to be made as future proof as possible, and that meant an investment of £6554 from Stirling Council’s Rural Broadband Infrastructure programme which now allows Balfron Business Hub to access a dedicated ultrafast gigabit fibre service.
There’s a wide range of companies currently occupying space in the hub, and a lot of interest for remaining units. Tenants have found many different ways to benefit from being in the Hub – from being able to take each other’s deliveries, introducing trades to each other, working together, and sharing costs on items like recycling. The production space concept has worked well with the easing of COVID-19 lockdown and businesses have been able to take advantage of that much needed extra space.
Lee says “It does help having a community of businesses – people feed off each other, get inspiration, make recommendations between organisations and it all feels stronger.”
I’m looking forward to tasting cupcakes from Amii Anderson of Flour Girl, and occupants like CDL Electrical, The Kitchen Company Scotland and Splash Gordon (garden design and water features) have already networked with the other trades present. Tools, equipment and expertise is being swapped – it’s a very human approach to the co-operation.
Tenants pay a straight rental and the way the Hub operates means there’s always someone there, so there’s never a time that a delivery can’t be accepted. It’s an informal structure where businesses remain independent but there’s lot of informal co-operation. The units house small businesses employing 3-5 people so currently there’s about 20 people employed.
The local community has also been positive about the new Business Hub. From an acre and a half of under-utilised space in the heart of the village, it’s now a thriving space that’s been enhanced. The local community council and Scout group are able to use some of the storage, and despite being less than 6 months in existence, it already feels like it’s an integrated part of the community and a source of pride. Bringing more people to Balfron also means that local cafes and eateries are benefitting from increased footfall too.
Lee’s own business has changed the way can do business and its potential to expand. Prior to the introduction of the Hub, lack of infrastructure and space meant he was unable to expand. The investment in installation of fibre connections means for any business wanting to operate from the site can benefit.
Looking forward to restrictions being lifted Lee and tenants are keen to mark some anniversaries “We couldn’t have a formal opening, but we’ll plan something soon and there’s a lot of people we need to thank. We couldn’t have done this without help from the community, Stirling Council and former MSP Bruce Crawford. We’d like people to see what’s been achieved. After 4 years in the making it’s both vindication and a relief that it’s working and Balfron Business Hub is a significant part of the village. We want everyone to be able to benefit from its presence.”