Mind the trade gap

Improving the UK’s trade performance is central to our future prosperity and medium-sized businesses have a critical role to play in delivering this, says CBI director-general John Cridland

The summer is here and many of us will soon be getting on a plane to head to sunnier climes for a well-earned break. But it’s not just holidaymakers jetting off into the skies.

As confidence in the recovery returns, a growing number of businesses are exporting their products and services. However, we need many more to head to the airport to ensure sustainable, future prosperity for the UK is flying high. Last year, our exports increased by only 1 per cent and, in the first decade of this century, our share of global exports actually fell from 4.4 per cent to 2.7 per cent.

Mid-market businesses have great potential to reverse this decline and bang the drum for UK plc in established and emerging trade markets, to deliver sustainable future growth and prosperity.

Yet there are challenges for this sector along the road to exporting successfully.

A lack of confidence and knowledge among many mid-sized businesses (MSBs) can be a barrier to finding and pursuing opportunities abroad. So, the first step for them is to build up their international know-how and practical knowledge of overseas markets. Firms need to strengthen their international networks and get that essential on-the-ground experience. They can tap into the assistance offered by the Foreign Office and UKTI to oil the wheels on the ground.

Firms also need to get to grips with the practicalities of exporting, and recruit individuals with international experience, acumen and understanding.

Look at high-end cheesemonger Cheese Cellar. Its knowledge of airlines has enabled it to provide fresh cheese for first and business class flights to diverse markets, from the UAE and Hong Kong to France and the Caribbean, with total sales having grown 30-35 per cent since it started exporting in 2012.

Firms need to strengthen their international networks and get that essential on-the-ground experience

A significant hurdle for MSBs is playing the part of an international business, thinking and acting like a global firm. This means expanding their footprint in existing markets and growing into new, high-potential countries, such as South Korea and Brazil. Developing an international strategy, with serious financial planning, to grow their business and venture into new areas of the world is crucial to this.

Investing abroad is a milestone many mature businesses eventually reach. Using the knowledge they have developed, MSBs need to look at where their investment will be made and how it will look, carefully tailoring the investment model to each market.

The final stage on the journey is operating as a global business, developing processes to continually grow the business, from expanding business models and corporate structures to helping new exporters. Cath Kidston is a great example of this, having partnered with experienced local operators in Asia, allowing the business to grow profitably, but remain consistent with the brand.

We mustn’t forget how strong our brand is, and how broad the opportunities are to sell what we do and what we make. We have a well-deserved and deep-rooted reputation, coupled with a brilliant trading history. It’s time for MSBs to make sure the future shines just as brightly.