Images show Anna Price (left) and Jemma Clifford – creators of the Rural Business Awards
As an energy supplier to businesses with no mains gas, LPG specialist AvantiGas has always understood the special challenges faced by rural businesses – and the company has now strengthened its ties to the sector by becoming a key sponsor of the Rural Business Awards.
After three years devoted to recognising the UK’s best rural businesses, the RBAs are expanding to include six regional heats building up to the 2018 national final to be held in Spring 2019. AvantiGas has signed up to be prime sponsor for both the Eastern region and the Midlands.
The combined territory takes in a total of 17 counties - Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire in the East, plus Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Shropshire and Rutland for the Midlands.
Rural businesses which make it to one of the six regional finals held around the country next October have the chance to qualify for the national finals.
The awards were created and are run by Anna Price and Jemma Clifford, who themselves run rural businesses and felt with a passion that there was a pressing need to give more recognition to and more of a platform for rural businesses that contribute 19% of Gross Added Value in the economy in England (source: Defra’s Statistical Digest of Rural England 2016).“We are thrilled that AvantiGas has decided to become a Regional Sponsor of the RBAs for our 2018 programme,” said Anna.
“Partners like AvantiGas, who identify closely with rural business and understand the challenges we face, really do help us to further raise awareness of the breadth and depth of businesses operating in the rural sector. We very much look forward to working closely with AvantiGas over the coming months.
“As the UK’s only dedicated awards programme for rural business, the Rural Business Awards is becoming an essential part of the rural business landscape. We would encourage all firms that are based in a rural location, or those that serve a rural marketplace, to enter. We have 13 categories, and for 2018 for all six regions covering the whole of the UK.”
The RBAs have very rapidly established themselves as an integral part of the rural business environment. AvantiGas Brand and Marketing Executive Abi Martin said: “We were delighted to take up the opportunity to sponsor the RBAs, particularly in the Eastern region and the Midlands, where we have so many customers who rely on us.
“We’ve been supplying homes and business from our local depot at Stanton in Suffolk with bulk gas for many years and have increased our range to include bottled gas from here too and also from our West Midlands base in Wednesbury, so whether our rural customers use LPG for heating their premises or drying their crops or fuelling their catering, we’ve got it covered from one of our many distribution centres across the country or from our HQ near Chesterfield.
“This is our chance to show our support for rural businesses as the RBAs help to give them the recognition they deserve and the platform they need to put their case to national and local government about the special challenges they face. Our local staff will be actively raising the profile of the RBAs and encouraging our customers to enter.”
Once Anna and Jemma had had their brainwave, confirmation that the idea would resonate with the entire rural business community came very quickly: “We were sat around the kitchen table and we came up with the idea at 11 o’clock on a Thursday morning in November, 2014, and by two o’clock in the afternoon we’d secured our headline sponsor and we’d got a date in the diary to run the first awards ceremony.
“So we went and got a business loan each, Jemma and I secured a small amount of funding on a personal guarantee and we went from there. I think we started with about £20,000-worth of equity and off we went.”
“We’ve found a great niche really. Everybody’s been so supportive, because there are so few people actually helping small and micro businesses that are rural, though rural businesses face even more challenges than traditional small businesses in cities do.”
The 13 categories for the 2018 awards cover every aspect of rural business activity and include Best Rural Start-up, Outstanding Rural Diversification Project, and awards for best rural businesses in retail, manufacturing, tourism, food and drink, social enterprise and the creative/media sector, as well as Best Rural Education or Training Business and Rural Employee of the Year.
“It’s a really exciting time with lots and lots going on,” said Anna. “We’ve listened to what our entrants need, and a lot of the time they’re saying to us that the national Press and the national coverage that they get is lovely, but it doesn’t necessarily drive customers to their door in the way local coverage could. So we decided to go regional and to really push things locally within markets that our entrants and winners and sponsors want to do business.”
But Anna and Jemma have not been slow to bang the drum for rural businesses on the national stage too. Anna has been interviewed on BBC1’s Countryfile about the RBAs and she has been actively lobbying Government: “I spent two days in Westminster lobbying at Portcullis House, doing round-table discussions with Rural England about digital accessibility and connectivity. Then I was at No 10 with one of the Government Advisors on Business, talking about what can be done to help small rural businesses.
“We’re quite heavily engaged with DEFRA as well organisations like the CLA (the Country Land and Business Association), the National Farmers’ Union and Anglia Farmers who all lobby on behalf of rural businesses.
“We’re talking with DEFRA about everything around social policy and community skills shortages, transport links, connectivity and we’re highlighting that not all rural businesses are based around land and agriculture. There are so many thousands of businesses that, for example, operate from a rural base with rural contacts but produce electronics, are education providers or sell design. Our job is to highlight those businesses and lobby for a joined-up approach to supporting them.”