It seems the most optimistic business leaders in New Zealand are young, female and or Maori.
It’s just one of the standout findings of Westpac’s third survey of the mood and intent of more than 1200 business leaders across New Zealand.
The Westpac survey also revealed that just one in three business leaders in the Bay of Plenty think business conditions will improve in the near future.
It also shows large businesses are twice as likely to want to grow as SMEs (small and medium enterprises which cite a desire for work-life balance as limiting on growth aspirations.
Westpac NZ chief executive David McLean says there had been a shift in sentiment since previous surveys in 2011 and 2015.
“This time, reports of positive growth were higher than ever before, however expectations that business conditions would improve have tapered off.
“That thinking is consistent with the view of Westpac economists, who believe we are now past the peak of the business cycle.”
David says there were marked variations in the outlook and results of different groups, with 40 per cent of women reporting business growth in recent years, compared to 32 per cent of men.
And, looking to the future, 55 per cent of under 35s expected business conditions to improve in the next year, compared to 41 per cent of 35-59 year olds and 34 per cent of those over 60.
Māori, Indian and Asian respondents were more confident about the future than those identifying as European.
In the Bay of Plenty, 33 per cent of business leaders expected business conditions would get better in the near future, compared to a national average of 41 per cent.
The survey also showed a disparity in the expansion plans of businesses, says David.
Twice as many large businesses were planning to expand than SMEs. More SME business leaders than ever before said maintaining work-life balance was their chief stumbling block – 47 per cent of SMEs said work-life balance was a barrier to expansion and 22 per cent of them said it was their main barrier.
Other obstacles to growth, for businesses of all sizes, included a lack of skilled staff, access to funds and increased competition.
In the Bay of Plenty, just 23 per cent of survey respondents said they planned to expand in the next few years, compared to a national average of 31 per cent.
David says as a nation, New Zealand needed to up its game when it came to supporting businesses that wanted to grow.
“It would be great to have more small businesses feeling equipped to expand, as we know large businesses employ more people, earn more income and have more consistent growth aspirations.
Asked to rank their expansion options, SMEs indicated an increasing preference towards upskilling staff, while interest in all other forms of expansion dropped off.
David says this view reflected what Westpac is seeing.
“Difficulty finding labour has emerged as a major constraint on business, with the unemployment rate now at a nine-year low. What we’re seeing in the survey results is that businesses want to hold on to the good people they’ve got and invest in their professional growth.”
A societal move towards flexible working was also evident in the results; nearly four out of five respondents said they offered flexible hours to employees and almost half of those businesses said doing so helps support growth.
The survey also showed there was a significant difference in the way automation is perceived, depending on business size.
”More than half of large businesses expect they’ll automate parts of their operation in the next five years, compared to less than a quarter of smaller enterprises.”
David says it’s evident business leaders were tuned in to the opportunities and obstacles in their industries.
“At Westpac, we’re on a mission to help our customers financially so they can get on with growing a better New Zealand. This research shows the commercial landscape is changing, but businesses are up to the challenges that lie ahead, as they look to carve out their own pathways to growth.”
The top three investment priorities cited by Bay of Plenty businesses were transport (49 per cent), skills and education (14 per cent) and housing (12 per cent).