MP Margaret Hodge’s cross-party public accounts committee recently warned that the government will miss their ambitious 2020 export growth targets, and placed a large portion of the blame for this at the door of UKTI, a government agency she considers to be ineffective.
It’s something that surprised me based on my own positive experience with UKTI, and an opinion which I believe fails to fully acknowledge the myriad of challenges the UK faces to jump-start more significant export-led growth.
Every British brand that has started to export successfully will have a different story to tell. While I doubt that UKTI would feature in every case, I suspect the direct or indirect influence of UKTI would feature prominently in many tales.
This is certainly true in stories we’ve heard from many other companies that we’ve met along the way. In Bulldog’s own experience it’s an easy exercise to connect many positive outcomes back to a key UKTI input.
Sweden was Bulldog’s first export market and it was UKTI who introduced us to our distribution partners and helped organise our launch. They have remained a trusted sounding board and have brought new opportunities to our attention.
For any would-be first time exporter I always recommend speaking with UKTI. You’ll get quick access to a skilled international trade advisor who can become a good entry point to a variety of grants and other means of funding, as well as help you to navigate a broad network of domestic and overseas experts and information.
The suggestion that UKTI can single-handedly orchestrate the doubling of our nation’s exports to £1 trillion in eight years however does appear far-fetched. They can certainly encourage, cajole, mentor and instigate, but they can’t do it alone.
In order to get significantly more companies exporting for the first time, we need to make sure that as a country we’re building the world-class businesses of the future. This requires more joined up thinking at a government level, and more ambition and spirit amongst businesses and entrepreneurs to embrace export as a means to grow.
It starts at the top. As government look across our economy and industrial base I think we need more clarity upon which industries Britain’s comparable advantage might come to rest, and how these areas can be better encouraged through smarter investment and policy.
Nurturing these brave and inventive outward-looking companies of the future also requires a talent pipeline upgrade. Investing in our schools and universities to help them nurture a bigger group of entrepreneurially-focused creative thinkers would be a great place to start. Currently other countries are better than us in this area. Our education system needs a big injection of ambition, strategy and cash.
Every British company not already exporting also needs to do some soul-searching. Certainly an overseas growth strategy will not be appropriate for every company or individual, but if you’re not exporting make sure you know why. If it’s a fear of the unknown, unease about how to get started, or just a low level of ambition, get in touch with UKTI and talk things through.
Patterns of global consumption are fundamentally shifting. Over the next ten years we’re likely to see more than 900 million additional middle income earners entering the global economy. Every British company should ask themselves whether they are fully embracing the opportunities created by this sea-change. Your current line up of products and services may need a rethink, so be prepared to be innovative in order to best answer these needs of would-be overseas consumers.
British manufacturing retains a strong reputation for high quality in many foreign markets, and English will continue as a global language of commerce for a long time to come. There is a lot to be positive about. Enormous opportunity is out there, but it does require self-starters to catalyze this promise into tangible outcomes for their own businesses.
Better British exports should not just be seen as a barometer on the UKTI’s performance. It’s down to all of us, Margaret Hodge included, to better address the growing export opportunities for British companies inherent in a changing world.
Simon Duffy founded Bulldog Skincare for Men in 2006. Today the award-winning men’s skincare brand is available in more 10,000 stores across Europe, Australia, America and South Korea.
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