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From the south west to the world

12 April 2016

The south west of England has outperformed many other regions when it comes to exports, but the growth is from a low base – and speakers at the recent Global Growth Conference highlighted why more firms should seize international opportunities

“We started exporting by accident, now it’s a necessity,” said Andy Palmer, chief executive at Aston Martin – and keynote speaker at the CBI’s Global Growth Conference, held in partnership with UK Trade & Investment at the University of West England, Bristol. Sending 75 per cent of the cars it makes overseas has meant survival for the firm, he added. 

With no new models last year, all of Aston Martin’s growth came from exports – something Palmer is now looking to build on with the launch of the DB11 sports car.

“Combine new products with new markets and you start seeing interesting things with growth,” he said.

And just as exports has brought stability to the car firm, Richard Clothier, managing director at Wyke Farms, explained that exporting had reduced risk for the cheese maker, created growth and crucially helped to strengthen it in its home market. The international popularity of the brand, which is now in 160 markets, gives it better negotiating power with the supermarkets, he said.

The best of British

Clothier also credits the reputation of Somerset for some of his company’s success. He added: “There’s a resurgence in British values, so leverage it.”

This was echoed by Stephen Boyd, executive chairman at luxury leather manufacturer Pittards: “Everything ‘Made in Britain’ has cachet. It stands for reliability and consistency.”

But Maike Nielsen, head of group marketing at Spirax Sarco, questioned why the British didn’t make more of this and why many lacked the confidence to shout about their goods. As a German national, she said: “In Germany, we are born knowing that exports is just what you do. It’s not difficult.”

She explained that part of the valve manufacturer’s success was getting into markets early, “having exactly the right people on the ground” and listening to what the customer needs. The company is now in 53 countries.

Sarah Prichard, director at engineering firm BuroHappold emphasised the importance of having an international mindset and making it “part of the company’s DNA”. The company’s second ever project 40 years ago was overseas.

“We’re constantly looking for challenging projects with exciting clients regardless of where they are in the world,” she said. “But we make sure we go into places with care. We never go into an unknown territory with an unknown partner in order to try and protect ourselves.”

Overcoming challenges

All the speakers recognised the challenges facing new exporters. “The biggest challenge is always the front-loaded investment,” said Clothier. “It’s no good being impatient about it. You need to look at it as a medium-term project that will take three of four years to make a return. And you will have to drag some of your colleagues along with you.”

As a case in point, Wyke Farms recently picked up a listing in 4,500 Walmart stores in the US, seven years after originally meeting the buyer.

Control your export journey, or your export journey will control you

The longer term nature of the investment also raises the challenge of getting the right finance in place. Clothier said the best step the government could take to help more businesses export was around investment for growth “at the very bottom end”, arguing that nothing has beaten tastings on the ground for Wyke Farms. “Those seeds really do grow into some fantastic things,” he said.

With workshops, sponsored by Grant Thornton, around compliance, managing political and economic risk and export finance, delegates were given the chance to share their stories and concerns. Common themes emerged, including the importance of taking time to do enough research; asking for advice, finding the right partners and building relationships; being structured in your approach; and not being put off.

“Control your export journey, or your export journey will control you,” was one group’s top tip.

But for all the challenges, there was no doubt about the potential rewards up for grabs. “Opportunities are what business leaders get out of bed for,” said Phil Smith, representing UKTI in the region. “There are plenty of them globally.”