The Institute’s annual survey is sponsored by AIG and carried out by TAEFL.
This year’s survey, launched at the GTR Conference, used quota sampling which largely reflected the spread of respondents across the country with Northern Ireland’s responses being around 5% of the total survey and manufacturing areas such as Midlands and North West contributing around 20% each. Over 80% of the businesses had been trading internationally for over 10 years, and over 10% trading more than 5 years, which again gives us an expert view of what is happening and what might be needed to make business easier.
So what did they tell us?
73% told us they were growing, while 27% are static, with just 21 companies claiming to be contracting, This positive outlook is reflected in many surveys at the moment although the ONS figures are struggling to support this energy – with the adjusted figures putting exports down from a £304bn 2013 to £293bn in 2014.
29% are part of a supply chain and 70% direct to buyer but it is unclear whether this includes distributors and third party buyers. 17% arranged for shipment direct to an overseas buyer without the goods ever hitting the shores of UK. 11% sold online while 22% had other methods of selling – one assumes more complicated agency agreements and the like.
Moving on to exporting as an integral part of the company’s business, we asked if they saw their dependency on exports increasing, decreasing or staying the same in the next 5 years and an overwhelming number, 68%, stated it was due to increase with 28% saying they remain dependent in the same way. Demand for their products and strategic growth were cited as the main reasons – with product demand reaching 65% while growth as part of a strategy was only 39%. Still our businesses are being driven by external forces rather than a drive to growth and build strategically.
Looking at the risks that can be perceived by exporters, we asked them what they thought. 66% thought they were facing the same amount of risk as normal while 29% thought risks were increasing and this is something we need to look into as a project – perceived risks against the reality.
We asked ‘what do you see as key obstacles which may prevent you from developing overseas markets or exporting?’
In order of importance:
20% Compliance with local regulations
13% Lack of knowledge
5% Fear of losing your intellectual property
However 45% said they were no obstacles at all!
This probably led to the next response with 48% very confident trading overseas and 44% somewhat confident – good news indeed.
However, our respondents did say, ‘not knowing what you don’t know can be scary’; ‘understanding which compliance and local regulations must be followed’; ’failing to understand cultural nuances can have disastrous consequences’; ‘there are issues doing business the right (ethical) way’; and of course there is the dilemma of getting paid on time or at all.
We then asked the question on everyone’s lips – do you see continued membership of the EU as critical to your business? A resounding 57% said yes. However, 26% said no – not critical, with a very concerning 17% who didn’t know. There is a huge job to be done helping businesses to understand the full impact of the trading bloc element of the EU and the ease of doing business there.
Issues around financing and funding international trade revealed:
Still insufficient information about payment methods
Naivety around costs of getting paid among the SME startups etc
Inadequate financial planning and understanding of the extended working capital needed for international trade
Pricing is not well thought through often not achieving desired profit at the early stages
So again we hear that our businesses are uncertain of these issues despite there being extensive training and help programmes supplied by government and banks. How can we help those who won’t be helped?
Finally, we turned our attention to a new element of risk in international business – that of cyber attacks. With the world shrinking and the ability to form a lasting contract with one click online it was surprising to find our respondents rather sanguine about any possible threat.
For example, a software developer selling online may have issues securing a sale when sending data downloads. It could be as simple as the infrastructure in the receiving country is frustrating the contract of sale, or, something more sinister such as an attempt to divert payments or disrupt business.
In terms of physical products being sold over the internet, again the speed at which the decision can be made often deflects from the delivery system and payment systems used to fulfil the contract agreed online. In order to develop a sustainable international market, the need to fulfil has never been more important – but the lack of knowledge is worrying. The problem is that companies grow and begin to rack up charges against bad debts and make bad business decisions on pricing or tax strategies.
Training and education is the starting point for all these issues – the better informed we all are, the better businesses we run internationally. ‘Getting by’ is something you can do only if it’s not important. However, having a stab at international trade is not what our competitors are doing – we need to get sharper about this – and we need to start with our young people as they study at school.