Adam Marshall, Director of Policy and External Affairs at the British Chambers of Commerce, discusses his role, the Government’s £95 million growth package for SMEs, and what the future holds for British exporters….
Give us a bit of background: how did you get into your current role?
I’ve worked here for two and a half years now. Before this I helped start up a thinktank called the Centre for Cities. We focused on getting Britain’s cities working to the best of their abilities and ensuring economic prosperity.
There’s a big connection between the five years I spent there and the work I do today – it’s all about supporting growth across the UK.
I guess I’m a bit of an international trader myself: I was born in Washington but I’ve lived here for years. I certainly understand how things can get lost in translation!
What does a typical day involve?
No two days are the same. I spend a third of my time coming up with policy ideas, another third proposing those ideas to government and civil servants, and the final third meeting with businesses in Chambers up and down the country.
I might be discussing issues of importance for businesses with ministers, or working with our small team to come up with policy ideas based on businesses’ concerns, which we’ll then propose to Government and float in the national press.
I also talk quite regularly with chief executives and Chamber members to make sure that all our policy work is really going to help businesses on the ground.
David Cameron recently announced a business growth package for SMEs worth £95 million…
It’s always good to see ministers looking for ways to help small and medium-sized companies grow their businesses – especially during difficult times.
We welcomed the fact that £95 million from the regional growth fund is going to be put towards that goal.
But it’s a very small amount of money when you think there’s so much to be done. When you compare it with the lending targets that the banks have, which are upwards of £80 billion, it’s a drop in the ocean. I can’t get too excited about a single government policy initiative.
What more would you like to see being done?
There are the things that need to be done for all business and the things that need to be done for exporters specifically.
The first thing that we need to do is re-establish good relationships between companies and financial institutions. Those relationships have been damaged in recent years.
A lot of businesses tell us they simply want clarity and transparency around raising finance. And that means better communication from the banks.
Businesses also need better access to alternative sources of financing: there is help out there, for example to access equity funding, but it’s just a lot of companies aren’t aware of it.
What about for exporters?
It’s all about access. Research done by BCC earlier this year showed that only 25% of companies are exporting or have exported, which means 75% of companies aren’t.
On the one hand we need increased support for companies who are already out there exporting. But we also need to help those who could make the move and break into overseas markets.
One simple step would be to increase access to funds for first attendance at overseas trade shows, where companies often get their first big break or learn the ropes from other businesspeople.
How are British Chambers of Commerce helping?
Chambers work with exporters every day: we have a front door in every town and city across the UK.
We help businesses crack into new markets and find ways to finance their transactions. We also issue export documentation, which facilitates entry into new countries. Basically we are a one-stop global trade shop – right down to providing businesses with a mentor from our community of existing exporters.
Tell us more…
First, we lobby for the interests of small and medium-sized exporters – not just the biggest international companies. We make sure Government policy recognises how important SMEs are for the growth of the economy, and how much they need to be supported.
Second, we offer ‘hands on’ help support for exporters through BCC and, locally, up and down the country.
The third thing is we build links around the globe. We have links into Chambers of Commerce and business communities in countries as far afield as China and Korea on one side of the world, or Brazil and Argentina on the other side of the world.
What are your members current main concerns when it comes to international trade?
One of the main concerns this year has been to do with the Bribery Act. Many companies, especially smaller ones, only start exporting when they’ve found an agent to market their products overseas. They’re now concerned they’re going to be held responsible for the agent’s actions under the new Act.
What we need to do is to reassure them that, as long as they’ve done some quick checks on their agent, they shouldn’t have any problems. And we’ll keep telling ministers that they need to avoid legislating in ways that could ‘chill’ SMEs’ confidence.
Results of the BCC/DHL Trade Confidence Index for Q3 have just been released?
It’s establishing itself as a really important tool – not just for exporters but for policymakers too. It helps them understand what the beating heart of Britain’s export business community is feeling.
What’s really encouraging is that despite some of the conditions that we have been seeing, exporting is still growing.
But there’s no denying that growth has slowed down fairly significantly compared with previous quarters – so we’re in choppy territory. That means we need to do absolutely everything possible to ensure that exporters have all the support and confidence they need.
Finally, what does 2012 hold for British exporters?
I think it will still be a challenging year for the British economy as a whole. Our reliance on exporters will be even bigger next year. Why? Because they’re the principal source of growth and prosperity we can count on.
Unfortunately the majority of the UK’s exports currently go to Europe and North America. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with that, it’s just they’re slow growth markets. In contrast the BRIC countries and others are very fast growing. We need to be helping UK companies get into those markets.
Get help with going global. Visit www.britishchambers.org.uk to find your local accredited Chamber of Commerce