UKTI Regional Director Mark Robson tells BQ Yorkshire Editor Mike Hughes how entrepreneurs can take the first steps into exporting and take the Yorkshire brand across the world.
At a recent BQ dinner debate in Hull, Mark Robson told our guests that exporters need a certain approach to get the job done, saying: “Companies that grow rapidly have a novel way of thinking about how to create a market. It is all about an attitude to look for new markets and new ways of selling and growing.”
Sound advice from the man who has been the UKTI’s regional director for Yorkshire and Humber for more than 16 years. But how soon should a new business start finding time in a hectic first few years to think about assessing international market opportunities?
The timing can be critical. Too soon before the real potential of the new business has been investigated and you lose the global market through poor reputation and the local market because you have stretched too soon. But too late and you may never know how lucrative it could have been to be the fresh new face of your sector.
“It depends so much on which sector you are in and what sort of specific product or service you are providing,” Mark told BQ. “But with the growth of the internet and online sales in recent years a lot of people are sending internationally anyway and traders can be found quite naturally through web searches from anywhere in the world.
“So entrepreneurs need to realise that is the case, foresee any early enquiries for their goods and know how to respond if they have to send something abroad.
“You have to maximise the benefit of that and make sure you make the right decisions from the start because there are controls and possible barriers to overcome, like the shelf-life of a product and how it is packaged before you can just send something off.
“Take simple steps. Set up the website and be aware of what information you are putting into the marketplace and what your overall attitude is to international business. My thought would be to think before you act, because you don’t want a panicked response which means you could miss an opportunity.”
BQ entrepreneurs in Yorkshire are known for being an enthusiastic and confident bunch, but this is where the foot needs to be taken off the accelerator for just a few moments. Saying ‘yes’ to every enquiry will sound good and will make you feel like you have made the right career move. But having the strength to know your limitations and sometimes turn something down until the time is right can be a valuable asset.
“This may seem like an obvious thing to say, but you also need to think about being paid,” adds Mark. “It can be an easy process, but it can be complicated and you need to be aware of which you are dealing with and how you will respond.
“The other side of the situation for an aspiring entrepreneur is that, when you have looked at the situation carefully, there are ways you can treat an export as just another customer.
Maybe they will be as easy to deal with as someone across in Liverpool. Think about it and be rational.”
The UKTI is at the centre of a helpful network that new exporters can turn to. Two of the more obvious members of that are the banks and chambers of commerce. A first enquiry to any of these will set the ball rolling, but each have their particular part to play.
“Banks will provide their information and then pass people to us and we would do the reverse, so that we all work in a collaborative way to help the businesses. Our particular priority is to start people off on the way to being successful long-term and sustainable exporters.
“We can help them grow from responding to an enquiry on their website to building a business. We would encourage them to find out why these people are buying from them and what else they might be interested in and what else other companies in their country might be interested in.”
One of the most powerful assets available to Yorkshire’s new generation of exporters is the region’s global reputation. Ever since goods were able to be transported outside the UK, the standard of product and the strength of character of the people delivering it has been admired and is now welcomed - and expected.
‘We’re based in Yorkshire’ gets hundreds of exporting companies one step nearer to new deals and long-term business relationships.
“The Yorkshire brand is certainly very well known,” says Mark. “For instance, the work of people like Gary Verity means the profile is very strong in France and I think it means a lot that a firm is from Yorkshire, and that the region is part of the overall UK brand.
“They see cutting-edge quality and innovation here and around the world. The industrial revolution started in the Pennines, with the wool and cotton mills and then the steel coming in from Sheffield and the Yorkshire mills becoming the grain basket of the UK. This region has always been a producer and that has driven our wealth and built the cities and the great municipal buildings you see here.
“We are known as the place where industry started and that reputation has continued. We are still creative, still producing high quality goods and services in a beautiful part of the world that is well worth visiting.”
His enthusiasm for the region he has represented for so many years makes him a Yorkshire champion alongside the likes of Sir Gary, with his days spent telling countries why they should work with Yorkshire. Times have changed and industries have thrived and fallen, but that job of steering potential customers here is as valuable as ever.
“I started in 2000, when all the talk was about what the internet could do for us. But it wasn’t until a couple of years later that the full impact was felt, with the first e-commerce sites appearing after all the B2B activity. The mass online market is probably only about seven or eight years old and is a massive revolution.
“We have also weathered a recession during that time and while it was very difficult for many Yorkshire businesses, those that traded overseas were less impacted. We went into the recession early and Europe a little later, so we had businesses under pressure but then we came out of it when other firms in Europe were going into it and that created opportunities.
“Then in the last fifteen years we have had the growth of massive consumer markets in places like China and Indonesia. Markets that were pretty unthinkable a few years ago are now accepted as normal, such as computer gaming which has gone from nothing to huge potential along with growth in training, education and communication.
“It’s not going to slow down and things wil keep changing and evolving, which keeps us all on our toes, but this is what we want. It is different, but it doesn’t have to be difficult.”
The optimism is contagious, and based largely around the belief that exporting at the right time is becoming a ‘normal’ part of business planning for firms of every size. When you can export at the touch of a button, growing that to become a multi-million part of your operation has already got a head-start.
One of the oldest pieces of advice for entrepreneurs – probably first discovered on a wall somewhere in White Scar Cave – is ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ and it is advice that every entrepreneur will instinctively follow. The first months of running your own company might well be dominated by telling everyone what you have and what it does. But then comes expansion of your client base and product range – moving away from one marketplace and looking further afield for the next opportunity.
“Getting out there and talking to people is still the best way to do business,” adds Mark. “If you want happy customers who will come back to you and want to buy from you, you will start with a conversation and build a relationship. That will inevitably involve emails, but you have to get out and get to know people as well and see how they use your product so you can best understand how to sell it to them.
“How much time you spend doing each can depend on whether you are selling a bottle of beer or a complex piece of machinery, but it still all about trusted relationships that you have to stick with. We can help open doors overseas for the full range of companies and then grow with them as they expand across a fascinating and constantly changing world.”
Since it was set up in 1997, the UKTI’s stated aim has been to “help businesses export and grow into global markets and help overseas companies locate and grow in the UK.”
Its own brand is hugely successful, and no entrepreneur in any of the BQ regions - Yorkshire, Scotland, the North East, the Midlands, the North West or London - would consider exporting without at least a call to Mark or one of his colleagues. It’s clear that Mark has a hugely-experienced business brain and it is to the UKTI’s credit that they are able to recruit and keep the sort of talent that many businesses would look for in their boardrooms.
Perhaps that is how Yorkshire entrepreneurs should view their UKTI contact – as an available non-exec they can ‘headhunt’ to bring another dimension to a management team.
TOP TEN: What the UKTI will do to help new exporters