The challenges of entering international trade have been widely reported recently, on the back of a gloomy economic outlook and the new regulatory framework that traders have had to adjust to post-Brexit.
But trade has also always been an arena of opportunity. This is particularly the case for firms that help others to export or import in a post-Brexit, post-Covid world.
IOE&IT business member Customs & Freight, a global trade services provider, does just this. Its chief executive, Frederic Jean-Baptiste, saw an opportunity among the challenges faced by traders.
Jean-Baptiste had worked in financial services and around the world but had seen his opportunities for travel limited because of the pandemic. A natural entrepreneur, he had a “eureka moment” reading a PwC report into the impact of Brexit. He explains:
“I had worked in finance for 13 years and now I wanted to do something different. I always wanted to be an entrepreneur and I found a piece of research from PwC describing the huge increase in declarations that will occur in the UK because of Brexit and the lack of resources in the market for supporting this. This was a eureka moment.”
He saw the compliance challenge facing UK businesses as matter of national importance and realised that there was a need for solutions to this. His intuition was that these solutions would need to be digital in some way.
Conducting his research online, using keywords like ‘digital trade’, he came across a webinar the Institute of Export & International Trade (IOE&IT) hosted last year alongside Fujitsu, featuring IOE&IT director of strategic projects and international development Kevin Shakespeare.
“I learned about the IOE&IT after this and I liked that it was a not-for-profit with this long history. You could see that it had a genuine expertise in international trade.
“Joining the IOE&IT then wasn’t a big question for us, because of its clear focus on compliance and custom. We always find very good information.
“Now, with the Single Trade Window and digitalisation more broadly, you're always providing the information that we need to receive.”
On the back of the information he found on IOE&IT webinars and through benefits like the IOE&IT Daily Update and International Trade Technical Helpline, Jean-Baptiste was able to get up-to-speed with the trade regulatory landscape.
Alongside his experience and networks in the financial sector, he started to pull together a multi-faceted solution for his clients. He explains:
“When it comes to international trade, we do freight forwarding, customs clearance, but because we see trade as an integrated function, we are also providing financial services as well – for example FX risk management, marine cargo insurance and sometimes, via partnerships, even trade finance.
“We look at international trade not just as the clearance and transportation of goods, but more as a transaction between parties. There's a deal between a buyer and a seller and what we try to do with Customs & Freight is to provide solutions to our customers so that closing off the deal profitably is as easy as possible.”
Through Customs & Freight’s sister organisation, Global Sales Company, Jean-Baptiste also provides commercial representation services, leveraging market intelligence and data analytics, to international clients trying to sell into the UK or UK clients going the other way.
He also works with an international network of agents, regulated partners in the financial services industry, and also has access to customs systems like CHIEF and CDS.
Finding a niche
He says that his firm has largely dealt with MSMEs moving goods that are more difficult than most to export.
For instance, he’s supported a private individual to import a grand piano from China, UK retailers importing dangerous goods from Italy, UK manufacturers exporting products of animal origin under special procedures, and special cargo projects with US defence firms exporting controlled goods from the UK.
“We mostly work on difficult cases. So, whenever there is something that’s a bit complicated, that's how we provide value to our clients, them being seasoned or first-time traders.
“We can offer indirect representation and support non-standard goods movements and procedures which require a lot of intensive knowledge. That's where we thrive.”
Crutch to lean on
Unsurprisingly, given the types of goods his firm supports, Jean-Baptiste is a frequent user of the IOE&IT’s International Trade Technical Helpline – a key benefit for many business members.
“We are advanced in what we do, so when we are coming to the helpline, we are very demanding.
“It gives us direction for difficult issues. Sometimes you just want to confirm something too, and so the helpline is very useful.”
He has also done training with the IOE&IT and describes the International Trade Accelerator Voucher scheme from earlier in the year – through which firms could apply for free training and consultancy worth £1,100 – as “absolutely fantastic”.
But perhaps one of the main things that keeps Jean-Baptiste coming back to the IOE&IT is its customer service. He says:
“Your customer service is absolutely great in terms of the follow-up that you do. You're very interested in your members and are in a different league from some of the other bodies out there in this respect.”