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Export experts do a great deal

6 Oct 2021

Overseas trading isn’t always plain sailing but smart UK business leaders are growing revenues by boosting export operations – and there’s potential for even greater growth.

Expanding your business overseas has never been straightforward. The logistical hurdles include everything from navigating local laws and taxes to building brand awareness in potentially unfamiliar cultures. Add in the upheaval of a global pandemic, and geopolitical shifts such as Brexit, and things are bound to appear even more complex.

Yet statistics from the Department for International Trade (DIT) show exports were still worth more than £560 billion to the UK economy in the 12 months to June 2021. The UK remains one of the world’s top five exporting nations, with nearly 150,000 UK businesses exporting goods.

And that figure could easily be higher. According to UK Export Finance, which offers financing advice and support to exporters, one in eight firms with a turnover of more than £500,000 are not exporting but could be.

“There’s a massive untapped export potential in the UK,” says Carl Williamson, head of trade finance at UK Export Finance. “And DIT research shows exporters are more productive, more resilient, more innovative and more profitable.”

Some CEOs and MDs have exporting baked into their DNA, and nowhere is this more apparent than among our Top 50 Most Ambitious Business Leaders. Take Astonish, one of the only vegan, cruelty-free cleaning brands in the UK – it is proving that its ethical stance is just as popular with international customers as it is with those at home.

“We’re proud of the fact that a quarter of our turnover is from overseas,” says CEO Howard Moss, who took over from his father, Alan Moss, in 2006 with an ambition to take the ethical brand into the mainstream.

“We’re the number two cleaning brand in Israel,” he explains. “We send in excess of 60 containers there every year.” Beyond Israel, the company has 15 exclusive distribution partners around the world and sends its products to such far-flung spots as Korea, Bulgaria and Ghana. “People love the performance of the product, love that it’s British-manufactured and our cruelty-free credentials.”

For some companies, having boots on the ground has opened up even bigger opportunities abroad. Marketing agency Transmission, which works with some of the biggest names in tech – from Microsoft to HP – spied a gap in the market for a global agency in the sector.

“We were predominantly working with US companies, running their European marketing but we launched in San Francisco, Singapore and Sydney in 2019 and the company just skyrocketed,” says CEO Chris Bagnall.

Transmission adapted during the pandemic, launching a virtual events solution to help its clients stay connected to their customers. “We continued to push on while a lot of the market was retreating, furloughing and making redundancies. Our clients made the stuff that helped people work from home.”

Last year, it also launched in Beijing and Delhi – “To be global you need to be in the biggest and fastest-growing markets in the world” – and more recently, Transmission announced three new offices in the United States, namely Austin, Denver, New York, and one in Warsaw, Poland.

“By the end of the year, we’ll have 12 offices around the world. Some international markets are still having a tough time. But we are building the infrastructure so that we are ready when they are ready to bounce back.”

Pet Food UK is a Hertfordshire-based dog and cat food business, with brands including Barking Heads and AATU, which now offers its natural, nutritious products in more than 30 countries. International trade makes up a third of its turnover, with three markets now bringing in more than £1 million and growing rapidly.

One of the keys to the company’s international success is its seamless merger of its online expertise with the physical world – a digital-first approach that helped the company remain resilient through the challenging Covid pandemic.

“We’re working on building a true omnichannel business in the UK and overseas,” says managing director Sarah Kaye. “We’re entering new markets through digital first, then supporting that with bricks and mortar. As well as partnering with platforms such as Amazon, we also continue to invest in our own direct-to-consumer platform. It’s so much more than a shop window now. It’s a one-stop shop.”

Research suggests that companies overseas are willing to pay a significant premium for UK brands. Kaye’s experience reflects that: last year, Pet Food UK turned over almost £20 million. It aims to hit £40 million by the end of 2023.

“Confidence in UK brands is still high,” says Kaye. “In Asia, one of the biggest markets for our super premium brand, people treat their pets as they would their children. And they still have the conviction that the UK is a stamp of quality, trust and confidence.”

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We’re entering new markets through digital first, then supporting that with bricks and mortar. As well as partnering with platforms such as Amazon, we also continue to invest in our own direct-to-consumer platform. It’s so much more than a shop window now. It’s a one-stop shop.”
Sarah Kaye
Pet Food UK

Building a brand abroad

When three brothers from London, Nohman, Rizwan and Imran Ahmed, decided to turn their love of sneakers into a business back in 2013, they ended up giving the world a whole new retail category: aspirational shoe care.

Crep Protect, which offers 32 shoe cleaning products, is now distributing to 52 countries worldwide, with 65 per cent of its business outside the UK.

“We made it cool to clean your sneakers,” says Rizwan. Crep Protect’s brand ambassadors range from Premier League footballer Dele Alli to American DJ and record producer DJ Khaled.

It has a 1.5 million-strong following on Instagram and millions of people watch the company’s YouTube stunts – whether they involve sending a pair of Kanye West Yeezy sneakers into space, or filming someone jumping into a bucket of melted M&Ms wearing a $30,000 pair of rare Nike Air Jordan trainers (and then cleaning off the chocolate to an Eminem soundtrack).

“The more outrageous we are, that’s what people tag on to,” says Nohman. “We know what our audience likes.”

But brand building abroad isn’t limited to celebrity endorsements. For The Cheeky Panda, which sells its sustainable bamboo loo roll in 35 countries, it’s about creating a strong brand look and a sense of itself that people across the world will recognise and respond to.

“When you go to a new market, you have low visibility, and people have to see you five to seven times to understand the brand,” explains founder Chris Forbes.

He credits co-founder and CEO Julie Chen with bringing the clean lines of fashion design to their range.

“People love our brand,” he says. “Lots of companies struggle to globalise, as they have to change their design and messaging for local markets. But from San Francisco to Stockholm and Shanghai, we don’t have to change the name.

 

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Our category is gigantic, worth £200 billion across all products. Getting one per cent of that business would make us a £2 billion turnover company – and one per cent of that is achievable.”
Chris Forbes, Founder
The Cheeky Panda