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Alternative finance: The key to business growth in the F&D sector?

James Crellin and Richard Naish at Walker Morris discuss the role of alternative finance in the revival of the UK economy as businesses, many within the Food & Drink sector, seek finance for growth over the next 12 months.

An image of a calculator, with a background of vegetables. A metaphor for the topic of this article, Alternative finance in the Food & Drink sector.

The past 18 months have been difficult for SME businesses in all sectors but particularly the food and drink industry, with widespread uncertainty and financial pressures caused by Brexit and the conflict in Ukraine.

SMEs account for up to 61% of total employment and around half of turnover within the UK private sector. Often referred to as the ‘lifeblood’ of economies around the world – SMEs are essential to the recovery of the UK economy following the impact of Covid-19, Brexit, the war in Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis.

According to the Federation of Small Businesses, at the start of 2020 there were 5.94 million small businesses, with SMEs accounting for 99.9% of the business population. At the height of the pandemic the need for financial support for small businesses surged. This led to record lending to SMEs in 2020, rising to £54 billion in the first nine months of the year, as 1.5 million businesses drew on government-backed loans and schemes.

With many food and drink businesses now on an even keel and looking forward to the future, additional finance may be required to enable them to invest in growth strategies. Yet, more than three quarters of businesses have been unable to secure traditional bank financing, making the need for alternative lenders greater than ever.

Traditional banks reluctant to lend

In the past decade, traditional banks have become less inclined to lend to SMEs. Some of this reluctance follows the longstanding repercussions of the 2008 global financial crisis. As a result, we saw some of the biggest lenders limit access to funding in an attempt to reduce risk of liquidity.

Traditional banks also struggle with the cost and difficulty of getting up-to-date and complete information from SMEs. In addition, SMEs are often reluctant to take out products that require a lot of paperwork. Plus, some SMEs are unable to provide collateral for loans. However, SMEs now have alternative options when it comes to securing finance.

The rise of challenger banks

The struggle of SME’s to secure finance from traditional lenders created a gap in the banking space in which challenger banks, fintech companies and other alternative lenders are able to thrive.

The UK’s alternative lending market is one of the fastest growing sectors within finance, recent figures showing is was worth £6.26 billion – with the European market doubling to over €6.6bn. This rapid growth demonstrates the scale of the opportunity for alternative lenders.

SMEs often need credit in order to finance their growth. Many seeking funding will use it to grow through acquisitions, or to support investment in new technology. While others may invest in real estate.

Proceeding with caution

Despite the huge growth within the alternative lending market many are reluctant to proceed in securing funding from alternative lenders, even though many are being refused lending from traditional banks. SMEs often cite concerns over possible changes in market dynamics, which could impact lenders, and by extension, SMEs as customers.

In addition to this, SMEs showed apprehension over potential higher interest rates from alternative finance companies, making them appear less competitive against traditional lenders, along with a perceived lack of regulation.

Well documented cases of lenders’ struggles, with lack of accreditation and associated risk, has led to an unfair perception of the industry, but this is not reflective of the reality of alternative finance.

There is more to be done to reassure SMEs that alternative finance is a viable option to support their business expansion goals. The substantial growth within the market means there is opportunity for SMEs to find lenders that cater to their specific business needs, with many offering innovative technological platforms, products and services tailored to various sectors.

Tips for securing funding through alternative lenders

With alternative finance leading the charge in SME growth, food and drink operators should make sure they engage with the lender that is right for their business.

Talk to your lawyer

Receiving good advice and seeking legal guidance is a good place to start. Good advice should help to ensure that any regulatory loopholes or concerns businesses have around unregulated lending are addressed early and you are aware of the contractual obligations between both parties.

Look for lenders within the F&D sector

It may help to look for alternative lenders that already operate within the food and drink industry. This way they will have prior knowledge of the sector and may be more willing to help financially, understanding the specific challenges of the food and drink industry.


Be up front and honest about your business history, detailing any past debt, as well as your business’s strengths and previous achievements. Being transparent builds trust with potential investors and by ensuring they have as much information about your business’s future prospects as possible, they can make an informed decision on whether to offer the finance needed.

Plan and research

Be as prepared as possible when meeting with any potential lender. Knowing exactly how much you need to borrow and where within the business this money will go will give confidence to an investor and improve your chances of securing finance. As well as this, it is crucial for SMEs to have an open mind when looking for investment.

Do not let being rejected from mainstream banks put you off the search. There are a growing number of diverse alternative lenders – you just need to find the one that is right for your business.

Need support with this issue? Contact Richard or James to discuss how we can support you.

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Corporate and Head of Food & Drink

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Banking & Finance

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