Carpet fitter Darrell Smith of Woodbridge is glad that 2023 is over - mirroring the sentiment of many business owners gathered in Ipswich for a networking lunch this month.

"There's always business happening, but it was just a tough year," he admitted. "I knew there was always going to be the other side of the wave but it just happened quite suddenly - it was a shocker."

Other business bosses at the Suffolk Business Leaders' Lunch at A Listers at Aurora at the waterfront had similar tales. Although the shrinkage of the national economy was downplayed - and there was a feeling the worst was over - there was no doubt that they had just been through a sales slump.

Last week the Office for National Statistics reported that UK gross domestic product shrank by 0.3% in the final three months of the year - the second consecutive quarterly decline - prompting economists to declare a technical recession.

In the last two quarters of the year, sales at family-owned Archway Carpets of Woodbridge took a hit - reflecting the broader picture of technical recession in the second half of the year.

"I try and keep a positive spin on everything because you have to and we got through it. Sales for some months were down by almost a third," said Darrell. "I have been in it (the business) for 12 years now. Last year was worst year I have seen."

Post-Covid, many businesses boomed as pent-up demand translated into sales - but last year showed that era was well and truly over.

Darrell - who runs the business with dad Graham, 73 - has been working hard to reverse the trend - and has been reaping some hard-won rewards.

He employs four people and also brings in sub-contractors. He has been keeping in touch with customers, looking at pricing, following up on every lead. 

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The worst time was mid-year and then the last quarter. But this year he truly believes the business has turned a corner. "It's completely changed. I would like to say it's back to normal - it's almost as if someone has switched the lights back on," he said.

"We are based in Woodbridge and everyone saw the same period of decline - we have a really good community in Woodbridge."

The one bright spot on the high street was travel, he said, with travel agents doing a roaring trade as people rushed to take holidays after two years of confinement during Covid. But with that exception "everyone did feel it being tougher than what it has been," he said.

Adam Soall - director and founder of removals company Loads4Less in Norwich - is looking forward to a positive year but acknowledged last year was tough.

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He is eyeing expansion at his small but growing company which employs 12 people. He is looking to set up another base in Colchester, and then Cambridge and Peterborough. 

"Last year was challenging," he said. "Sales were probably £30k down from the previous year."

Like Darrell, he saw a post-pandemic lift in retail sales - but then saw a return to pre-pandemic levels before last year's downturn. 

He has been out and about creating more contacts and powering his way through the downturn. He would like to develop his commercial side - now at 15% of the business - and raise that to 40% compared to his household arm, he said.

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Despite the headwinds, Ipswich insolvency expert Alistair Bacon of AMB Law, suggested that other factors can be at play with companies that failed. He cited the collapse of well-loved retail chain The Body Shop. "Why has it gone bust? It's owned by private equity and was loaded with debt," he said. 

In his opinion, the tide of collapses predicted had not materialised in the way expected once pandemic support was withdrawn. "It has not been as calamitous as everyone thought it was going to be," he said.

Suffolk entrepreneur Paddy Bishopp - co-founder and former owner of Suffolk coffee brand Paddy & Scott's - bought a business last year - Colourchange UPVC of Bentwaters.

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The firm - which provides a palette of colours for UPVC windows and doors - employs 13 people. It has seen turnover rise from about half a million pounds to just under £2m. 

It largely bucked the downward trend last year - but was not totally immune as sales dipped in the latter part of the year, he admitted.

"We had a very strong year until December. December/January were tough months but such a good February/March," he said.

He felt his business was helped by its strong reputation and a culture of customer service and looking after the team.

"We really spend time on our company ethos and making sure it's all about customer service and communication."

Speaking at the lunch, Andy Smith, founder of Ipswich marketing agency Strategiq, laid out the problems facing businesses - what he described as a "perfect storm".

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"We are officially in recession," he said. "It's a serious conversation and it's a conversation we at Strategiq are having every day at different levels. Part of that conversation is about how we can evolve our offering and help our clients with their thinking."

He discussed how firms might navigate through the storm. Some would invest through it - some would fail and crash, he said. There was no more important time to have a strategy in place, he added. He urged companies to "make sure you invest in your tech, your business plan and your brand".

"We are having to work harder to dig out those leads. When demand dips, competition increases," he said. "We are seeing demand dropping, competition increasing and therefore margins squeezed."

Nigel Slator, managing director of Cogent Technology in Felixstowe - a fast-growing company which makes printed circuit boards complete with electronic devices - said the business was very much geared for growth this year after being acquired by another Suffolk electronics manufacturer. 

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John and Deborah Pratt - who founded the company in the 1980s - sold the business to CampdenBoss of Mildenhall for an undisclosed sum in January.

CampdenBoss - part of Suffolk entrepreneur James Buckle's Heathpatch family of companies - makes terminal blocks for printed circuit boards and plastic and metal enclosures for electronics making the two businesses a good fit.

Cogent, a £10.5m turnover business, has seen its workforce grow from 70 to 110 over the past three years. It moved into a former SlumberDay premises in Langer Road from a site in Melton, Woodbridge, in 2020 to allow for expansion after landing a large contract.

Despite the benefits the merger will bring, Nigel admitted that the going has got tougher - because supply chain issues have caused a build-up of stock in the sector.

"It's become a lot more challenging. The thing is in electronics the year prior there was a lot of scarcity of electronic components so it was necessary for our clients to make long-term commitments to secure materials. Now the demand is not quite as they predicted it to be.

"There's a lot of stock in the system that needs to be turned.  I think at the back end of this year it will take off again as they burn through that inventory.

"Our business is driven by people investing in new technology. You'll get companies who go from one round of funding to the next in order to take their product to market."

Now these companies were trying to make that funding stretch further, he explained.

"When you get a recession you get a lot more competition. Everybody is trying harder," he said. But he added: "The merry-go-round has started to turn again - two weeks into January the enquiries started to pick up again. I can see demand returning.

"I think it was just a post-interest rate rise blip and a degree of over-stocking in response to the previous materials scarcity."

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The lunch - on February 15 - heard from chosen charity Home-Start Suffolk and its chief executive Tara Spence, Richard Pearce of Barclays Wealth and from Vistage chief executive group chair Stephen Norris who offered insights into how to go about succession planning.

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The quarterly Ipswich Business Leaders' Lunch was founded by Barclays Wealth, Black Fox Finance, MAD-HR, Ashtons Legal and Pure Executive. Larking Gowen is also involved. Anyone interested in attending should contact