A GROUP that gives a helping hand to small businesses is celebrating its 21st anniversary.

Blackwater Valley Enterprise's special birthday was marked with a reception hosted by BAe Systems.

Among the 120 guests were many former clients, as well as present sponsors and the mayors and chairmen of local councils.

Established in 1981, BVE provides free advice and information to anyone considering starting a business and to existing small firms.

Since it started up, BVE has met more than 18,000 clients and helped with a variety of issues, including business viability and plans, finance, marketing and regulatory requirements.

Many have gone on to start and develop successful businesses. Chris Seaton of PI Fuel systems, Rebecca Wills of Active Sports Therapy and Ian Dawkins of Hi-Speed Services all spoke of their experiences in setting up and making their companies grow with the help of BVE.

John Mitchell, chief executive, paid tribute to the work of all those connected with the group over the last 21 years.

He outlined the new initiatives launched in the past year, including the Meet the Buyer exhibitions, the Blackwater Valley Business Network and the Venture Capital Service, providing start-up capital for new or expanding projects.

The advisory service is provided free to the clients due to sponsorship from more than 50 public and private sector organisations.

New sponsors Barlows — Guildford and Godalming-based solicitors — have been pleased at the contacts they have made through BVE.

Christine Goodyear, head of company/ commercial, who has joined the BVE board, said: "We have found the opportunities to work with BVF, its board and advisers through our sponsorship are helping us to achieve some of our own business objectives.

"However, what you get out of it certainly depends on what you put in."

Pictured here raising a glass or two to the coming of age of BVE are Ian Dawkins, Ron Hedges of BAe Systems, John Mitchell, Chris Seaton and Rebecca Wills.