Supporting South West entrepreneurs' export success

Sue Tisdall, international trade adviser (ITA) at the Department for International Trade (DIT), explains how she’s helped develop the region’s exporting success by working with South West entrepreneurs.

What does your typical working week look like?

In an average week, I visit around three or four businesses at their premises across the South West to help them develop an export strategy. No two days are the same – I can be found on farms, in country houses, manufacturing workshops or office blocks.

It’s important to have a solid understanding of a business before advising them, and there’s no better way to do this than by visiting to see where the action happens.

Some days I will attend or speak at conferences or events relevant to international trade such as ‘how businesses can use e-commerce to export their products’, and ‘how to grow your business internationally’ or which focus on specific countries and markets such as China and the United States. 

Most years I speak with businesses at The Spring Fair, a home and gift show for the retail industry, and also attend the Going Global Live, an exhibition for new exporters.

But most importantly, I’m always at the end of the phone to provide support for business in a range of export-related challenges from goods stuck in customs, and providing assistance on regulatory measures for exporting consumer products to USA, to helping local businesses find a distributor in the UAE.

The wide range of businesses across multiple sectors I visit reflects the breadth of quality businesses in the South West region that are prime to export. Whatever the day looks like, the aim of it is always to support South West businesses to get their products or services to the global market.

What is the role of the Exporting is GREAT campaign?

The aim of the Exporting is GREAT campaign is to inspire businesses up and down the country to start or increase exporting and promote the support available to them when they do.

The campaign has also boosted the profile of smaller businesses on a global scale. For example, Lye Cross Farm, a farmer and cheesemaker based in North Somerset, featured in the Exporting is GREAT poster campaign and appeared in cities and airports across the world. This led to the business to being recognised by international buyers which was a huge asset when it came to securing new contracts. The firm now exports around 30% of its business to the USA, South Korea and countries across Europe.

We also encourage businesses in the same sector to team up and share knowledge – demonstrating that if one small business can export, others can too. We host events and workshops so businesses that have been exporting for years can share their experiences and advise firms that are just setting out on their export journey.

What are the top three pieces of advice you would give to a small business looking to break into a new, international market?

Do your market research - It’s important to identify early on which market you should be targeting. At DIT, we offer a service called the Overseas Market Information Service (OMIS) which shows different consumer habits and trends and identifies potential buyers and distributors.

Decide on your route to market -  This means whether you will sell your products direct, use an e-commerce site, an agent or a distributor. We can help businesses look at the pros and cons of each, and which is most appropriate for them.

Protect your IP – For many businesses, in today’s competitive climate their most valuable asset is their intellectual property (IP) – the creative ideas behind their product. Before looking at exporting, you should make sure your IP is protected to prevent competitors stealing your ideas, through patents or trademarks for example. 

If you’re interested in exploring the opportunities available to your business overseas, I’d encourage you to contact DIT at 01275 370 944 or to see what help is available. 

How does your background as an entrepreneur help you in this role?

Before working as an ITA, I founded several businesses. I developed skateboard parks for Bristol City Council, started a leading brand of exercise wear for women for retail and wholesale with a number of international customers, and opened a chain of high street retail stores – the turnover of which reached £25m.

This hands-on experience enables me to provide practical advice and solutions, rather than just textbook theory. I understand the business pressures that continually need to be addressed and know what does and doesn’t work. Understanding this is important to ensure that businesses that I work with get the best practical advice for entering into a new market or get the right support for any exporting challenges they face.

What do successful exporters have in common?

Tenacity. Businesses that succeed on the global stage need to have the resilience to keep going in the face of challenges.  

It’s also important to have a clear strategy. They need to know where they want to go, what they want to achieve and how they’re going to get there. Teaming up with an ITA is a good way of doing this, as we’re on hand to help. 

Lastly, a willingness to travel and visit markets. After all, business is done by people, so face-to-face meetings with potential buyers is the most effective way of building relationships and securing new contracts.

Why did you become an ITA?

Becoming an ITA seemed like the right way for me to give something back to the business community and help talented UK companies to thrive by tapping into new and emerging opportunities overseas. Every day, I feel a sense of pride knowing that I help innovative entrepreneurs to grow and expand their business. As an ITA, you are an integral part of the business journey, from the first international order to becoming a seasoned, global exporter. It’s a great feeling and an incredibly satisfying job. 

Neina Sheldon
Article by Neina Sheldon
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