Small businesses are at the cutting edge of Sheffield’s economy

A manufacturer and shop owner has called for more investment in a Sheffield neighbourhood to boost small businesses.

James Wallbank is a laser cutting engineer and owns the curiosity shop Makers on the Edge on Abbeydale Road.

James Wallbank outside his shop on Abbeydale Road

James Wallbank outside his shop on Abbeydale Road

He and his wife Liza sell everything from antiques to crafts and at the rear of the building is a workshop where James laser cuts intricate works of art.

James says traders are struggling to compete with online shopping but people who offer a service, such as hairdressers or cafes, are still doing well. The key to survival is looking at changing habits, seeing future trends and adapting.

He explained: “I went to art college on Psalter Lane and qualified as a systems engineer then I set up and ran a charity in the city centre called Access Space which was a tech lab where anyone could take part.

“It was about people taking control of technology so they could take control of their lives. I ran that for 13 years.

James Wallbank with his laser cut creations

James Wallbank with his laser cut creations

“In 2000 I learned about web design, you could learn about HTML and websites and set up your own business as it was so new.

“But by 2010 the amount you needed to know – what had taken three or four years to learn – had moved on. By then, 95 per cent of the market was taken by Facebook and most businesses didn’t need a website.

“I thought that’s interesting because tech used to provide a really strong opportunity for people and now it isn’t, so why not look at other technologies to see what’s coming out?

“I did some research with EU funding about where new tech would create local jobs and enterprise. I researched laser cutting, 3D printing, digital embroidery and computer reuse for three and a half years and concluded that we had to look at all these technologies. The one with the most potential for new jobs and enterprise is laser cutting.”

A close-up of the laser cut projects

A close-up of the laser cut projects

James, who has owned his shop for three years, found a niche which allowed him to generate enough income to invest further.

“I made model terrains for Dungeon and Dragons games and sold 11,000 of them in the first month. I made enough money to buy two laser cutters.

“My wife Liza said we should open a shop and added her creative ideas with my ideas of using new technologies.”

James now helps customers bring designs alive. “People come to us with an idea for a product and we help make that real. We do a lot of branded giveaway items.

A model of Abbeydale Road shops made by James and Liza Wallbank

A model of Abbeydale Road shops made by James and Liza Wallbank

“There are many laser cutting services but most want drawings that are perfectly optimised. I can give one to one tuition but I also work with customers.

“One of my clients is in her late 70s and had a fantastic design for a book and ipad stand so she sat beside me to design it and laser cut it. We also run parties for children to make wooden robots or perspex jewellery.”

James says Sheffield Council could do more to encourage smaller businesses and traders in suburbs.

“It’s about enterprise incubation and local regeneration. All these things relate to each other. There is a whole vision here for a new industry but you also need to get to grips with and understand how retail is going to change and how manufacturing is going to change.

“The Abbeydale Road community may have four or five businesses but that doesn’t mean they’re not significant. The council should really talk to them about what options are possible locally.”

James says the streetscene of a neighbourhood can have a huge impact on trade. “We have one shop near here which has been empty since 1986.

“Empty ships are footfall killers. They are like a dead cell that kill the cells around it like necrotic flesh. I would like to see landlords who keep properties empty made to bring them back into use and boarded properties smartened up.

“It really concerns me as how can we get the whole area sorted out. The issue has to be livability as footfall impacts on the local economy.

“There needs to be an awareness that change can happen and that an area can regenerate. All we have to do to stop that regeneration is nothing.

“The whole place is on a knife edge. There are people in this area happy to spend money if their money can be unlocked. That then leads to regeneration and integration and community cohesion, a reduction in crime and an increase in health.

“I acknowledge there are areas of the city that are worse off than Abbeydale but there are areas just on the edge that need a little push. If these areas have an economy which is struggling it may be they just need a bit of help to make a difference.”

Every business matters

Council chief Mazher Iqbal says every business matters to him, whether it’s Meadowhall or a small takeaway.

Coun Iqbal, Cabinet member for business and investment, said: “Regardless of whether it’s a sole trader or a business which employs tens of thousands, it’s about treating everyone equally because business is the heart of the city’s fabric.

“If you look at all the data it’s the small businesses that are the heartbeat and the glue of Sheffield’s economy and they are all very important.

“It would be tragic if people thought I was not interested in small businesses. As a council we run courses for them and offer help with web design, finance and marketing.

“We ask some of the big companies such as Irwin Mitchell and Grant Thornton to come in voluntarily and speak to small businesses and give them advice.

“Sheffield Chamber of Commerce would shoot me down if I didn’t speak to its members. It’s important that everybody feels part of this. There’s a lot of glamour and ritz when we announce a big new company opening but the lifeline is the small business across all sectors.”

Coun Iqbal says the business community is wide ranging and he meets with people from many different sectors.

“People in retail say all I talk about is manufacturing and people in manufacturing say all I talk about is digital and tech but I visit a lot of small businesses in all the sectors across the city and I attend business events to meet people.

“I try to get out to as many neighbourhoods as I can and speak to groups including retailers, property developers, advance manufacturing firms, digital and tech companies and cultural and arts groups. We value every business from Meadowhall to a small takeaway.”