IN his latest column, Ben Gilhespy, Operations Director of the Engineering and Manufacturing Network (EMN) looks at the importance of networking and why ‘bacon butty’ clubs still have a place when it comes to raising the profile of your business.

Networking has become a bit of a dirty word in recent years with the value of the old ‘bacon butty’ clubs diminishing, seen as places where people come to sell to you rather than to buy.

However, this type of activity also presents many opportunities to engage with potential customers and suppliers if you choose the right ones to go to.

That might seem strange coming from me given my role heading up EMN, but networking has to be worth the effort otherwise you’re simply wasting your time.

So where do you start and what should you expect, especially if the thought of entering a room to converse with strangers is an alien concept to you and pushes you far beyond your comfort zone.

I suppose that leads to another more relevant question which is ‘what do you want to achieve’?

The first step in answering this is identifying a networking opportunity attended by your peers and those who operate in your sector, therefore optimising your chance of meeting people with a common interest in which you can discuss relevant issues and hopefully increase your company profile which leads to sales or finding new suppliers.

Generally, networking groups can be split into three categories:

  • Cross-sector organisations which attract individuals at a certain professional level, for example business owners or directors where people with a shared business responsibility can meet to discuss topical issues and share experiences.
  • Sector specific such as manufacturing, digital, maintenance and automotive. This is an excellent opportunity to gain industry knowledge by sharing with likeminded professionals. These groups discuss more focused issues relevant to their sectors where open forums allow a free flow of beneficial information.
  • Geographical groups such as local business networks or business park / industrial estate groups where issues will be more around the community and local topics. These are an excellent way of keeping abreast of what is happening in your immediate area on a cross sector basis.

All of these have their place, but the most important type of network is your own personal one.

Over the years we build relationships with our customers, suppliers, support services and industry (yes competitor) peers. And that’s so important as being business owner or senior manager can be a lonely place and the opportunity to engage your own network with a coffee, pint, glass of wine or round of golf is a very important part of being successful.

I was given some excellent advice a while ago which is to spend four days a week working in your business and one day working on it.

Having a network on which you can rely for support with the latter is critical for success as this is rarely achieved alone – no one is an expert in everything and having a ‘multitude of counsellors’ helps make good decisions great ones.