When Covid-19 hit last year, the Institute of Export & International Trade just appointed its new director general.
The remit for Marco Forgione, former boss of the British Antique Dealers’ Association, on taking the helm at the IOE&IT was clear: get the Peterborough-based organisation in shape to help UK firms cope with Brexit’s new trade rules.
Then the pandemic arrived and with it, lockdown, requiring a change in tack for Forgione’s rebuilding plans.
After a quick switch to remote working and online course delivery, Forgione has spent the past 12 months navigating the IOE&IT to become a training partner of choice for UK importers and exporters.
Now the IOE&IT has this week called on government to boost its support for those international traders. Forgione argues there’s a lot more to be done to ensure international trade can propel the UK’s economic recovery:
Q: Can we start with the history of the IOE&IT…
MF: The Institute was set up in 1935 as a charity in a UK economy marked by the Great Depression. The founders – great industrialists of their era – wanted to enhance the UK’s export performance and to professionalise those involved in international trade. That remit hasn’t changed.
Q: One year into your tenure as director general, what’s been achieved?
I started in January 2020, charged with refocusing the organisation on the challenges for international trade as we headed towards Brexit, to boost the Institute as a membership body and develop our voice with the UK government and internationally.
At the end of March, we entered lockdown and had to pivot quickly from classroom-based provision of our training to entirely digital delivery.
We’ve used lockdown to focus on our fundamental offer, going back to that charitable ambition of professionalising international trade and growing the UK’s export capabilities.
Q: What does that evolution look like in reality?
We have some 3,500 members, more than half of which are manufacturers, a fifth of which are shippers and freight forwarders.
From a team of 15 staff in March 2020, we now have more than 100 staff after recruiting experienced traders to help UK firms develop their potential for trade and be a catalyst for the UK’s economic and social growth.
We’ve also have a more confident and informed voice with government in the UK and policy makers internationally.
Q: What’s the next goal for the IOE&IT?
Success is when the Institute has helped every business in the UK to treat international trade as second nature.
We have an incredible pool of trainers who have worked in trade, so that learners hear from people who know how to manage the complexities around international trade procedures. Our emphasis is on the practicalities of that as well as the theory – ‘applied learning’ if you like.
Q: Does the government give imports and exports enough priority?
As international trade minister, Liz Truss has shown herself to be a determined and dynamic leader. There was scepticism that the government would be able to secure the number of free trade agreements that it has managed to do, in a short space of time. Liz Truss and her department have proved the doubters wrong.
More needs to be done to help businesses really seize international trade opportunities. Bear in mind that since 1973 the UK has relied on the EU for its trade policy. Now, for the first time in two generations, we are in total control of our trade horizons, requiring a change of approach across government that wasn’t needed previously.
Q: What could that new government approach look like?
We’ve articulated this in a document that was published this week (21 April), called the Policy Platform.
It has 10 recommendations calling for a clear, definite and integrated approach to ensure that trade forms part of all government policies.
This means departments working together with our network of embassies, UK trade ambassadors and trade commissioners – fully interlinked to add value.
Our core recommendation is the establishment of a trade committee chaired by the Prime Minister that ensures international trade is at the heart of policy, linking to wider industrial and regional levelling-up strategies.
Q: Will the government listen to this call, do you think?
I’m delighted to say the Policy Platform has the endorsement of DIT and the minister for exports, Graham Stuart MP, who has written the foreword to the document and attended its launch.
The government has already invested to encourage firms in their exporting.
For instance, it has sponsored the Open to Export website – a free-to-use, entry-level knowledge and support resource for firms starting to export, which is now run by the IOE&IT.
In 2019 HMRC established the UK Customs Academy – a pioneering online customs academy through which more than 6,000 students have passed for qualifications right up to a Masters in Customs Administration.
Q: What else can government do?
SMEs need to be motivated to engage with international marketplaces. If your firm traded with the EU before 1 January, it wasn’t ‘international trade’ as such – but now it is.
We know this as we’re part of the consortium delivering the Trader Support Service, HMRC’s solution to helping firms in Great Britain and Northern Ireland adapt to new post-transition trading rules resulting from the Northern Ireland Protocol.
More EU trade transition support is needed to help traders overcome initial issues around Brexit. The government’s new SME Brexit Support Fund is a great step, providing grants of up to £2000 per company that can be used for training and consultancy.
The hope is that the government continues striking Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) in markets where the UK has volumes of trade and potential for expansion.
It seems to me we’ve got a once-in-a-generation opportunity to lead by example – in rebuilding support for multilateral trade rules, resisting protectionist impulses and using trade policy to achieve environmental, health and social goals.
An abridged version of this interview appeared in Lloyd’s Loading List on 19 April
Career milestones: Marco Forgione
January 2020-present Director general, Institute of Export & International Trade
2015-20 Chief executive, British Antique Dealers’ Association
2014-15 Chief executive, EVCOM (entity resulting from merger between IVCA and Eventia)
2008-14 Chief executive, IVCA (International Visual Communications Association)
2002-07 Director of communication & marketing, the Landscape Institute
1997-2002 Client relationship director, Classic Catering
1993-95 Parliamentary assistant, House of Commons