Boom sector: Exporting to expats

His Grimsby-based company, Nisa International, sells groceries and speciality products to British tourists and expats overseas. It’s a lucrative niche. Ramsden tells us his biggest market, by a long shot, is Spain, which accounts for a third of the company’s overall sales. “You’ve got a million British people living in Spain and 16 million Brits holidaying there every year,” he explains. “Our second biggest market is France. The third is Canada. But we’ve got a very, very long tail. We do little bits of business in lots of places. There are five shops in the Falkland Islands, for example, and we supply all of them. Ascension Island is entirely reliant on us for grocery products. Obscure markets are good for us.”

In many of the countries, the expats are second or third generation. They’ve been brought up on British fare – but they might never have crossed the Atlantic and been to Blighty. “The popular products are the very old-fashioned brands – the Atora suet, the Ambrosia semolina, the Hartley’s jam,” comments Ramsden. “It’s not a simple mirroring of the UK domestic market, by any means. These people aren’t buying food for fuel, they’re buying a connection to their heritage. There’s a big psychological element involved. And it’s up to us to understand the nuances in each market.”

Nisa International cuts out the need for local importer. It approaches a grocery store in, say Portugal, directly and, with the economies of scale and the buying power of its sister company, Birtish grocery consortium Nisa-Today’s, can offer it a significant cost saving on UK groceries. “We can advise that retailer on British tastes and suggest which product ranges to take, we can tell it how to merchandise them, and we can label goods for them in Portuguese so that they meet local regulations,” says Ramsden. The company has spent more than £250,000 on developing its website (available in six languages), which allows customers to review their ranges, see which new products are available, and check their invoices and statements. He adds: “It’s way more than simply taking orders from them.”

Ramsden recognises that to provide a top-notch service, you need top-notch employees. “We have a low staff turnover, only two leavers between 2008/2009,” he says. “Our wage increases are above inflation, profit-related bonuses are paid to all staff and we offer funding for professional qualifications, such as NVQs and MBAs.”

Nisa International employs nine territory managers who are charged with knowing their allocated markets like the back of their hands. “They go to some weird places,” he grins. “I’ve got a colleague that has just arrived back from Nigeria and Ghana. The regulations in some of the markets that we trade in are just so onerous. The US is particularly tough in terms of food-labelling rules and customs duties. But, in a weird way, we like that. If something is complex, it gives us an opportunity to add value.”

Ramsden himself spends about five to ten per cent of his time overseas (he’s off to Germany the day after our interview). He says the company spends close to £100,000 a year on travel. “We’ve got a culture of sensible expenditure. Nobody joins Nisa International to stay in five star hotels and travel first class,” he comments.

Where will he be digging for gold over the next few years? “We expect to see the biggest growth from the long-haul markets: North America; Africa; the Middle East; and Asia,” he replies, adding that the UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) has been an enormous help. When venturing into pastures new, Ramsden commissions Overseas Market Introduction Service reports and the UKTI hooks him up with staff at the local embassies.

His long-term aim is to be an exporter not just of British groceries but of other national food products. “Add that to the equation and this business could be ten times what it is today,” he says.

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