European Council for Small Business and Entrepreneurship
Engaged entrepreneurship research in Europe

We are sad to announce that Professor David Smallbone passed away recently after a remarkable career in the field of entrepreneurship and small firms. David was an engaging and driven individual who marked his career with a number of significant achievements, influencing many people and organisations in his life journey. He was a dedicated and active member of ECSB and never missed a RENT conference since he first attended in the early 1990s, demonstrating loyalty and commitment to everyone who had the privilege to know him.

David’s expertise spanned a range of areas including public policy, business growth, innovation, ethnic minority enterprise and transition and developing economies. Starting out his career as a teacher, David entered higher education in the 1980s with a research interest in small firms in local and regional development, initially examining local enterprise agencies and business support in North London. He established the Centre for Enterprise and Economic Development (CEEDR) at Middlesex University, UK and working with his team including David North, established a strong basis for brilliant research career. Whilst at Middlesex, David won a project grant in 1989, as part of the ESRC’s Small’s Firms Initiative; the largest programme of research on small firms up to that date, co-ordinated by David Storey. This enabled his team to undertake an exceptional longitudinal study of small manufacturing firms. David was very much a people person and he thrived as part of the Initiative, introducing himself to Robert at a conference in London in 1989, explaining he had read his PhD thesis and was interested in sharing ideas and working together; a seed that flourished over the next 30 years. Over the next decades, David worked with academics, practitioners and policy makers across the globe and built up partnerships across all continents. David was particularly influential in Europe, working on numerous projects in partnership with researchers in the European Network for Social and Economic Research (ENSR), the Organisation for Co-operation and Economic Development (OECD) and of course the ECSB. In the mid-1990s, David focused on projects examining transition economies introducing him to Friederike in Bulgaria in 1995; and forming a bond that lasted throughout the rest of his life. Amongst their many joint projects was one on support needs of small firms in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova that started with the firemen story (insiders only!) and finished with the famous train journey. The team, besides David and Friederike consisted of now long-term friends and colleagues Anton Slonimski (Belarus), Nina Isakova and Yuri Klochko (Ukraine), Elena Aculai (Moldova) took the night train from Minsk to Kiev, presenting project results in both cities. All team members were asked to bring a bottle of a typical drink from their own country to the train – resulting in Anton seemingly speaking more or less fluent English by the end of the night and David fluent Russian!

Above: David, Friederike, Nina, Elena – starting as colleagues, ending as friends. In mirror: Lidia, NN.

Further European projects ensued, including one on employment in small firms in Moldova and Russia in the late 1990s. Together with Elena Aculai and Alexander Chepurenko, following the crash of the Russian Rouble, David deviated from an interview guideline to advise those small business owners who suddenly faced a business-threatening crisis. David was the only male amongst a team of researchers and entrepreneurs on a project involving research on women entrepreneurs in Ukraine, Moldova and Uzbekistan. In a further cross-border project, David proudly wore his chapka bought in Tashkent, much required now in an ice-cold Vitebsk (Belarus). There are so many more stories that could be told that brings out David’s character and warmth: many of you will have fond memories of working with him and share a particular story or anecdote.

Uzbekistan. A research project on women’s entrepreneurship. In picture from left to right: Lidia (Ukraine), Elena (Moldova), Friederike (Germany), Charos (Uzbekistan), David, Damira (Uzbekistan), Nina (Ukraine). Photographer: Natalia (Uzbekistan)

It was in such projects and many others that David also proved to be fantastic mentor; reaching out to the next generation of SME researchers was his passion. David listened patiently and encouraged many to continue their scholarly journey. This was particularly important in Central and Eastern European countries after the Soviet system has collapsed because a scholarly career during the transition times was a risky venture and not well paid. In 1997, David was awarded his Chair in Small Business and Entrepreneurship and he successfully developed CEEDR over the next few years.

David and his chapka. From left to right: David, first row Anton (Belarus). Back: Friederike, Olha (Ukraine), Olga (Belarus, now living in Germany), Marina (Belarus), Anna (Belarus, now professor at Belarusian State University), Elena (Moldova). Photograph: Vitali (Ukraine).

In 2004, David joined the Small Business Research Centre (SBRC), Kingston University as Associate Director. This created a formidable research group, providing the opportunity for David to work with established researchers, including Mark Hart and John Kitching as well as mentor junior staff, including Eva Kasperova and Hang Do, who have since pursued successful academic careers. David also proved to be a very popular and effective PhD supervisor and external examiner, helping shape the thinking and many careers across our community. Whilst at Kingston he was also able to ramp-up and realise his passion for research in an international setting. In 2006, David led on a European Commission Framework 6 project concerned with implications of the enlargement of the EU for entrepreneurship in EU border regions, focusing on different forms of crossborder co-operation. The project was co-ordinated by David, working with Dr Mirela Xheneti, then a researcher in the SBRC, and a consortium of institutions in Germany, Finland, Greece, Poland, Bulgaria and Estonia. This was followed by numerous other projects, such as in 2008, on research to improve policy support for SMEs in China, funded by DFID and the National Reform Development Commission of the Chinese government. He worked with Jon Potter and David Halabisky of the OECD on inclusive entrepreneurship and was highly influential through his contributions at workshops and in research reports, particularly in at the beginning of the programme on inclusive entrepreneurship. More recently, 2016-18, David led a project on Born Global enterprises and their value chains for The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, again working with an international team and partners, including Iñigo Isusi and colleagues of IKEA (Spain). This desire to be engaged in international projects was unceasing and despite recent ill-health, his zest for life and intellectual curiosity continued to carry him overseas, most recently to Brazil in 2019 and India in early 2020.

Yet, David was not only a researcher with extensive international research project management and dissemination capabilities. Concurrently, he was contributing to the research community more broadly through his efforts in various committees and organisations. During David’s Presidency of ECSB (2005-07), he diligently turned the organization into one that became ever more attractive, particularly for younger researchers, drastically reducing the average age of the ECSB Board and laying the foundations for its overwhelming share of women on the Board. David subsequently became President of the International Council for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (2010-11), where he took the duties of the post seriously. In the words of colleague and friend from the Netherlands, Rob van der Horst, he was never outspoken, but when he spoke, everybody was listening – even the Americans! – because he had really something to say. David was on the Board of the International Small Business Journal and Associate Editor of the Journal of Small Business Management. As well as his hundreds of publications and project management capabilities, David’s recognition and expertise is reflected in his numerous awards and honours. In 2005, David received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Lodz, in recognition of his contribution to the study of entrepreneurship in transition economies – something that he was incredibly proud to receive. David spent three months at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, as a Visiting Erskine Scholar. He was Visiting Professor of Entrepreneurship at the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan; Fellow the ECSB and Wilford White Fellow of ICSB.

David and SBRC colleagues, Kingston-upon-Thames 2019 (Left to Right) Hang Do, Tim Harries, Audley Genus, Valerie Thorne, John Kitching, and Robert Blackburn

Those who have had the pleasure to work with David, as we both have, will have been touched by his dedication and passion, tinged with a sense of humour and humanity. David was a devoted family man, as well as an avid follower of cricket, rugby and football. As keen Arsenal supporter he held a season ticket and in his later years, noted that his mobility challenge enabled him to secure a seat at the Emirates football stadium that was ‘close to the action’. He was a great cook, when still able to – Italian dishes were his speciality. His birthday parties were legendary, at his home with family and friends; accompanied by a live traditional jazz band. In the past year, David’s health deteriorated but he continued to work tirelessly and insisted on going into the office to meet staff and students, never complaining and always planning the next project. It was this tenacity and dedication that has earned the highest respect amongst his peers. Already we have received well over a hundred messages of condolence from academic friends worldwide. He will be dearly missed by the academic community across the globe. David leaves behind his loving wife, Margaret, and family.

We will not forget you David. You leave a tremendous legacy. We are happy that we could join you on part of your journey. Now it is our turn to take over where you left off and to continue in your spirit. Rest in Peace.

David John Smallbone 13th May 1946 – 19th March 2020

Robert Blackburn (UK) and Friederike Welter (Germany)