Q&A with Lord Stephen Green

RB: Which countries do you consider fertile grounds for British exporters?

SG: Half of Britain’s exports still go to the European Union (EU) – and that’s likely to continue for a considerable time. The EU is a natural place to start – if you’re an SME that has never exported before, crossing the Channel may be easier than crossing the Atlantic or going to Asia.

Those already engaged in the export market need to think more broadly than that. In many cases, there are exciting opportunities in the emerging markets – China, India, Brazil and elsewhere. They are growing faster than the EU – and that’s likely to be the case for the foreseeable future.  

RB: In your view, how big is the UK business appetite for export? Can we ever be as globally minded as, say, Germany?

SG: The Germans have a very particular model. They’re famous for the Mittelstand and its great exporting prowess. But every country is different and there’s no point wishing we were like Germany. We have immense competitive strengths and I believe we’re at a tipping point now. An increasing number of companies are saying: “Hey, look, the domestic market’s growing slowly, we need to look elsewhere.” 

Brits are getting more comfortable with the idea of going overseas. Businesses are getting better support from the UKTI and, in terms of finance, from the Export Credits Guarantee Department. Banks are also getting smarter about international finance and so on. We’re beginning to see a real momentum develop.  

RB: What can be done at the educational level? Should we take French off the curriculum and replace it with, for example, Mandarin?

SG: I wouldn’t say we should scrap French, given our present company (we’re at an event with Rolls-Royce and French nuclear group Areva), but I do think Mandarin and Spanish are important languages. We all know that you stand a better chance of building relationships in foreign markets if you have a grasp of the language.

RB: Given your background, you have a real connection with bigger businesses. How do you connect with Joe Bloggs running a tile manufacturer in Liverpool? 

SG: HSBC, my previous employer, has always had a substantial small business clientele in this country. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing more exciting than going around and meeting businesspeople running all sorts of businesses of different sizes, in different parts of the country. In the nine weeks I’ve been doing this job, I’ve not actually been going around the world – I’ve been going around this country meeting businesses. It’s very energising.  

RB: When you’re encouraging small businesses to think globally, who are the role models that spring to mind?

SG : I’ve seen several dozen in the past few weeks. I’m not going to pick one out – that would be invidious. Their common thread is innovation, and you see this in every centre and every region of the country.  

Innovation isn’t just confined to the high-tech industries. I’ve seen very traditional businesses – making chocolate, for instance – that have been really innovative in their approach to branding, packaging and delivery. And they have taken the risk of going into international markets.

RB: What’s your response to Home Office pressure for tighter immigration rules? Could this damage UK business? Should caps on skilled immigrant workers be removed?

SG: It’s a very sensitive issue, for obvious reasons, but I think we’ve got a reasonable approach now to work permits and, as this beds down, I think we’ll find that it’s supportive of industry. We need to make sure that it works out well, of course.

RB: The public is scathing about bankers’ bonuses, yet entrepreneurs pay themselves £2m a year and pocket the money when they sell up. Is that fair? What’s your view?

SG: I think, as with everything, you have to make sure it’s transparent, fair and internationally competitive.

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