AN UNPAID adviser who has spent the last 20 years helping fledgling Oxfordshire entrepreneurs has won a top business accolade.

Retired company executive John Vernon, an adviser with Oxfordshire Business Enterprise (OBE), an independent advice service for people considering setting up their own business, has been awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion.

Mr Vernon, who has more than 30 years’ experience in the industry including a former role as corporate planning manager for engineering group Babcock International, was nominated by peers for efforts to encourage UK entrepreneurship.

He said: “I’m still struggling with complete disbelief, it was a total bolt out of the blue.”

OBE is a non-profit-making organisation supported by all Oxfordshire’s local authorities and co-ordinated from Cherwell District Council’s Banbury offices.

Mr Vernon, 72, who lives in Bampton, normally sees clients at West Oxfordshire District Council’s base in Witney.

He said: “Our two main selling points are that we offer advice face-to-face and it is free of charge. When you sit down and talk with people you get a feel for where they are strong and where they need to put in more work. It’s people that make companies happen. “What I look for is the determination that they will overcome all the odds to keep going.”

In the past 20 years OBE has advised 30,000 people in free one-and-a-half-hour sessions.

Experts can give general advice on starting a business or specialist help on finance, VAT, sales or marketing.

The other Queen’s Award winner in the county is Oxford-based computer software firm Zinc Ahead.

It was recognised with an International Trade Award, after seeing export sales soar in the last three years. Overseas business now accounts for 59 per cent or £4.2m of the firm’s £7.4m turnover.

That is up from £1.2m in 2010 on a turnover of £3.5m. This year, turnover is set to hit £10.3m.

The firm, based at the Oxford Business Park, supplies software systems to the pharmaceutical industry. It started trading 12 years ago and now employs 41 staff with offices in New Jersey and Sydney.

Chief executive James Brown said: “It’s really exciting to be recognised with a Queen’s Award, which is one of the most prestigious awards a company can get, so it adds credibility and authority to us.

“For our team based here in Oxford, it represents a real pat on the back.”

Mr Vernon and Mr Brown will be presented with a crystal bowl to mark their achievements and invited to a celebratory reception at Buckingham Palace in the summer.

Winners are also allowed to use the Queen’s Award emblem in advertising, marketing and on packaging for five years.