The British business network, COBCOE, does stellar work in creating networking opportunities and market contacts, as well as providing information and guidance to facilitate trading across Europe. We caught up with Howard Rosen, president of COBCOE since 2005, for some invaluable overseas trading insights…
How important is international trade for the health of the British economy right now?
International trade has always been important. After all, the British Empire started through trade, not through conquest, and trade across borders has been a very strong British tradition for centuries.
Nevertheless, I can’t think of a time when it’s been more critical than now. The domestic market is shrinking and the only sustainable model for growth involves increasing our exports of goods and services.
Every British business, however large or small, should be reaching out into Europe and beyond. Products and services shouldn’t just be developed for the British market – it’s important they have a significant export potential from the outset. We can no longer afford to design goods and services where exporting is an optional extra.
So what are the main things to be considered by British businesses when it comes to trading overseas?
To be able to succeed in what is a very competitive global market, British businesses need sound management, an educated workforce and the right fiscal environment.
We also need to get away from competing solely on price. Customers are prepared to pay for quality. British manufacturing used to be synonymous with quality, but over the years we seem to have lost that edge.
I’d argue that we need to invest in so-called ‘sunrise industries’ – industries that are new but growing fast – but ensure from the outset that we offer products we’re proud of.
Finally, we still need to understand the markets better and work on developing multi-level personal relationships to really make it work. There are hidden barriers to entry, which the European Union has sought to break down over the years. We need to be aware of these, and exploit opportunities as and when they become available.
What can we do better?
Part of the solution is improving levels of intellectual capital in companies looking to export goods or services outside of the UK – from senior management to the shop floor.
In terms of fair market access, business needs to work much more closely with government, through organisations like COBCOE, to ensure a level playing field. It’s too simplistic to call this lobbying, but both the British business community and the Government need to invest resources in eliminating unfair competition and restricted markets.
How is COBCOE involved in helping British companies do better business overseas?
Well, COBCOE is an umbrella organization, so we’re not directly involved that often. Normally, we support our 40 member chambers who see that as their primary role.
But we do sometimes get involved directly. Last year, for example, we were actively engaged in arguing for a practical solution, EU law notwithstanding, to allow British willow exporters to continue exporting their products to India where they’re being manufactured into cricket bats.
More generally, our annual gala dinner in London is a unique meeting point for the British business community across Europe.
Are there any ‘untapped’ opportunities that our readers should be aware of?
COBCOE operates in Europe. The conventional view is to look at the BRICS countries and other emerging markets as the key areas for business – Europe is usually seen as the slow growth market. We think this is a mistaken way of looking at things.
In fact, Europe has plenty of opportunities – in specific industries where Britain has lots to offer (e.g. financial services, security, biotech, ITC, PR and marketing), and in many of the economies to the South or East where there’s significant potential for growth. They might not always be easy markets, but it would be a mistake to ignore them.
What are the biggest pitfalls?
Large organisations often face quite different problems to SMEs. One of the greatest hazards, particularly for SMEs, is “overstretch”. Looking to work in too many markets at once can mean rushing in and underestimating local cultural, linguistic and economic factors – factors that are vital to their success.
Some problems afflict all trading businesses: corporate tax rates that are too high and, certainly in Europe, a national or supranational bureaucratic system that at times is suffocating.
That said, one key area where a unified European approach would make a real difference to British business is the much promised, but not yet delivered, European patent. This would afford European-wide protection for entrepreneurs and innovators.
At the same time, unstable public finances will badly limit trade if our policymakers don’t adopt measures for the reform of systemic failures in their economies.
So in summary, what would be your advice for businesses thinking of getting involved in international trade?
Do it rather than simply thinking about it! It’s not just that opportunities will pass by if you don’t jump in to new markets, but inertia is a natural enemy of entrepreneurship.
Of course, markets need to be assessed carefully first and relationships should be formed. This means focus, as well as the determination and commitment to understand your target markets, and form strong bonds with local partners and importers.
If there’s a dedicated British business network out there in your target markets, you should use them. Through their local contacts and memberships, local British bilateral chambers of commerce and similar organisations can give British businesses – particularly SMEs – a vital competitive edge.
Howard Rosen (CBE) has been President of COBCOE since November 2005. He is also Chairman of the COBCOE Public Affairs Commission and Member of the Council of the British Swiss Chamber of Commerce. Howard is Principal of Howard Rosen Solicitors, an English Law firm established in Switzerland specializing in international commercial and finance law, international leasing law and trusts.
COBCOE is a British business network that extends across Europe. Through its 40 member chambers it represents around 10,000 businesses operating in 37 countries, facilitating trade across Europe. The website www.cobcoe.eu is an invaluable resource for all UK businesses looking to trade in Europe.
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