Peter Westerman of Westerman's International
At 80 years old, entrepreneur Peter Westerman has been full-circle in terms of Britain’s involvement with the EU. He tells BQ why it’s now more important than ever for British businesses to seize overseas opportunities.
Peter Westerman is a giant among his peers. At 80 years old, the founder and CEO of Westermans International is one of the few remaining business leaders who has experienced running a business before, during and after Britain joined the EU.
And like many others over the age of 55, he was quite vocal and proud of his decision to vote leave last June to ensure Britain withdrew from the European Union.
But even he admits, it isn’t going to be as plain sailing as he first thought. “I, like most other people, didn’t realise the complications of coming out and that is true,” Peter said.
“I don’t think even the top dogs who helped us come out knew either. But, I still believe it’s the finest thing that could happen to England.
“Leaving the EU definitely won’t be easy but possibly and hopefully we can get back some of the old-style values of working, living and everything else.”
At 80 years old you could forgive Peter for wanting to wind down a little and take it easy but there isn’t much chance of that happening any time soon.
Every other day he's in another country trying to strike a deal and when he is at home he still occasionally rocks up to their Leicester HQ on his motorbike.
And the morning of the EU Referendum on 24 June was no different as Peter was working away in Malta, putting pen to paper on a deal to buy a load of welding equipment.
He recalls: “On the day of the referendum I was in Malta doing some business. We do some quite nice business in Malta.
“For small countries like them, Malta, Lithuania, they grab the chance of EU membership, they benefit from the grants and you can’t blame them for that.
“I can remember it happening, a friend of mine who I was staying with woke me up over there and told me. I couldn’t believe it, I was flabbergasted.”
As a company, Westermans International scours the globe buying and selling welding equipment. Turning over £3m a year, it is quite a feat for a family business which employs just 15 people.
And as Peter said earlier, nobody knows quite what is going to happen when the UK officially leaves the EU.
There is a chance that Brexit could end free trade with Europe and this could throw up a series of barriers to British businesses which currently enjoy free market movement on the continent, including Westerman’s.
Peter is confident however, that even if the worst happens and we struggle to strike such a deal, the world is our oyster and as a trading nation, we’ll continue to prosper.
He added: “What Brexit has done for us is make us look for other markets around the world and that’s exactly what we’re doing. And the truth is, life is good.
“My son is off to Greece on Thursday where we have some equipment. He’ll meet a man from Africa on the morning and do a deal for around 100,000 euros. I’m in a different country every week. I could be anywhere in the world.”
If Westerman’s teaches us anything, it is that there is global demand for British goods and services and if you go out looking for it, you’ll find what you’re looking for.
And, when one market falters, another market prospers. “Two years ago we were doing half a million a year with Nigeria and that stopped overnight,” Peter stated.
“We’re now starting to do work with Nigeria again, not a lot but it has started again. A lot of countries are in a mess. You just have to get out there and meet people and make things happen.
“More recently I’ve been to Iran, Saudi Arabia, all around the Gulf and every country in the EU. Iran is mind-blowing.
“There is so much business in Iran for the world, it’s there, but you have to get off your bum and go there which I have done.
Peter expects the company’s total sales this year to be around the £3m mark with exports making up 65% of that figure.
But why is the company such a success overseas? Peter jests that his age plays a part but he also believes a lot of it is down to the company’s British heritage and strong reputation.
He added: “If I say to somebody abroad, I’m talking to you as an Englishman, I’ll give you my word, they accept that. A lot of it is due to me being an old man but I love it, I’d sooner fly to the moon than let them down. People trust us.
“Now as times get more challenging, we can no longer get away with things as easily. If we want to build on our incredibly strong reputation as a manufacturing powerhouse we have to do the job right every time.
“If we say you can have the machine tomorrow, they have to have the machine tomorrow. If we make a mistake on anything, we put our hands up and say ‘yes that’s our fault, we’ll put it right now'."
So, is he showing any signs of slowing down? He concluded: “My wish is for me to go down to a four-day week when I’m 90 and we will continue to keep developing as we are.
“We have our core values, we know what to do and how to treat people and we will continue as we are expanding. To us the referendum result did come as a shock, it’s a kick up the bum but we recognise that and we’ll get on with the job as we’re doing.
“We’re back on target now. Life is good and I don’t expect that to change at all, there’s no reason for it to. If it does change, it’s our fault, not the worlds.”
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