In December 2017, Theresa May was in 10 Downing Street and Dr Liam Fox led the Department for International Trade (DIT). No one knew for certain what Brexit was going to look like, though May had set out the UK’s twelve negotiating objectives during a speech at Lancaster House earlier that year. Rishi Sunak was two years into his first Parliament as an MP and had not yet served in the government.
Some scientists were saying that humanity was due a pandemic, but the words ‘covid’ and ‘lockdown’ weren’t widely used. The Institute of Export & International Trade (IOE&IT) was still solely based in its office in Peterborough, with a team of just over 10 core staff, and had just appointed a new chairman.
Fast forwards five years and the world has somewhat changed. The UK is on its third prime minister since May’s resignation in 2019. Boris Johnson succeeded her into 10 Downing Street with the mission to “get Brexit done” and he did – or at least he oversaw the UK’s departure from the EU single market and customs union, as well as signing the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
A pandemic arrived, with the word ‘covid’ becoming synonymous with human tragedy and economic crisis. Breaking lockdown rules led to Boris Johnson’s resignation as prime minister while Dr Fox’s successor at DIT, Liz Truss, recently lasted just 45 days as Johnson’s successor, having also served as foreign secretary. Rishi Sunak is now prime minister.
The IOE&IT has also changed immeasurably. It has over 150 employees, a new director general and offices in London, Brussels, Bangor and Nairobi, as well as Peterborough.
Period of progress
One of the constants through this tumultuous period of change has been the presence of Terry Scuoler CBE MIEx as the chairman of the IOE&IT. Now approaching his five year anniversary in post, Scuoler looks back on the last half a decade as a time of great progress for the organisation.
He tells the IOE&IT Daily Update:
“I sensed very early on that the organisation needed to change in order to meet the five-to-ten year challenges that the industry, the wider economy and the British government faced.
“With the help of a great team, that continues to get better, we’ve made great progress towards achieving this. It’s become greater in scale and profile, while its national, regional and international outreach is much better too.
“It's a very different organisation and is now well-equipped to support British business for the future.”
‘Adapt, learn, change and invest’
Promoting the opportunities of international trade is at the heart of the IOE&IT’s mission and Scuoler is adamant that now is as important a time as ever for this.
The impacts of Brexit, Covid and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the UK and global economies are well known. There are always challenges, though, and businesses need to adapt.
Reflecting on how the IOE&IT itself had to adapt during the pandemic, Scuoler says:
“It’s an incredibly challenging time and businesses have to adapt.
“In March 2020, the IOE&IT had to adapt to the pandemic, as the vast majority of our training was delivered in classrooms. Today the IOE&IT delivers a fully remote learning programme.
“It’s critical that businesses adapt, learn, change and invest. Businesses of all sizes must recognise that, rightly or wrongly, change and challenge is always going to be there. But don’t be fearful to invest. Work your way through it.”
Why invest in international trade? Because, as the IOE&IT’s current director general Marco Forgione often says, businesses that trade internationally are more productive, efficient and sustainable.
For Scuoler, despite all the challenges, international trade presents unprecedented opportunities for businesses.
“In the UK we have got a number of advantages. Rightly or wrongly, the world’s business language is English. English and Welsh law is respected around the world.
“The world population is growing, and we are seeing increased buying power from the burgeoning middle classes in sub-Saharan Africa, South America, China and elsewhere. There are also a significant number of government programmes and support initiatives that not every small business is aware of.
“Sometimes it’s quite difficult for business leaders to take that first step and get on a plane to a country where they don’t understand the language. But the key message I want to give is to urge businesses to sensibly calculate the risk, prepare for change, be bold and invest.”
Scuoler also argues that businesses can do more to make the most of ‘Brand Britain’, calling it a “great asset”.
“If the government, regional and devolved authorities consistently monitor and properly promote it, with sufficient support overseas from embassies and consulates, it’s a great asset. It is an integrated package and when it works well, it’s a force for good.”
Despite the challenges posed by Brexit, Scuoler is keen to point out that the UK has rolled over many of the agreements it previously had as a member of the EU, and has indeed signed new deals as an independent nation since leaving the bloc. However, he argues more needs to be done to promote awareness of the benefits of these deals to businesses and says the IOE&IT can partner with government to help it do this.
Scuoler doesn’t think the UK’s trade deals are perfect though, citing the lack of provisions for the services sector in its agreement with the EU. He says that agreements with Japan, Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand are better in this respect, and so services providers may be better suited looking to sell into these markets. He says:
“It’s actually quite difficult to become a lawyer in France because there’s a completely different set of regulatory authorities.
“If you’re looking for the line of least resistance, as a service exporter, you may instead look to sub-Saharan Africa, India, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. In many of these markets much of the regulatory environment is similar to that which we have in the UK.”
However, Scuoler remains adamant that there’s always opportunities in any market for businesses with innovative solutions to sell.
“Where there is innovation, excellent expertise and determination, there are always opportunities, even for service exporters. However, it won’t happen overnight.”
Next five years
The IOE&IT’s mission, in any period, is to help innovative businesses succeed in international markets. Looking ahead to the next five years, Scuoler says the IOE&IT can achieve this by becoming “the absolute go to” organisation for government and businesses alike.
“I would like to see the IOE&IT become the absolute go to organisation for the British government, British industry, the manufacturing and services sectors, and a host of other stakeholders in the UK.
And the IOE&IT should be the go to organisation for many other nations around the world for advice and help on trading internationally. Ultimately, I’d like to see it become the key partner for the World Trade Organization.”