Covid, Commerce & The Commonwealth: The Future of UK Exports

Published 22 September 2020

In our blog series, Covid, Commerce & The Commonwealth, we will explore the impact the coronavirus has had on trade across different regions and sectors in the Commonwealth. For this edition of the series we are joined by Geoffrey de Mowbray, the Co-Chairman of the British Exporters Association.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself, and your role within the British Exporters Association (BEXA).

I have been working in international trade all my adult life, mainly focusing on markets in Africa, South America and most recently Asia. From a young age I wanted to find a way to use trade as a tool for development for emerging markets and also to empower smaller businesses to trade internationally without having to navigate any of the real or perceived barriers. I am a big fan of technology and seeing the technological progress in international trade in the last few years leads me to believe the coming years are going to be very exciting indeed.

I first joined BExA in 2013 when I was honoured with the Young Exporter of the Year Award. BExA was a new world for me, and was a great insight into how the large exporters, insurance companies, financiers, banks and UK Export Finance (UKEF) finance supported exporters and where the gaps remained.   As Co-Chairman of BExA, my role is to represent the needs of the Micro, SME and MSB exporter members to government and work with the Department for International Trade (DIT) and UKEF to ensure they get the support required.  BExA is an organisation where individuals volunteer their time for subjects in which they are passionate about change to the benefit of their organisations but also for others.

2. Give us an overview of the scale of international trade for British Exporters Association members before the coronavirus pandemic.

 BExA members range from some of the largest FTSE companies to 1-2 person companies and cover a broad range of sectors. Business internationally was buoyant pre-Covid especially with the increase in drive for new markets outside of the EU with Brexit on the horizon.

Naturally more could be done but we were seeing a growing number of membership applications which were either from exporters or services providers wanting to expand into new markets, start exporting in general or looking to give back to the exporting community.

3. What have been the main learnings for businesses you work with as a result of the coronavirus?

 There have been broad learnings, but I would say the common themes for a world where we have to expect the unexpected:

  1. The greater the number of geographies and markets in which businesses operate, the more resilient they are to disruption in any one particular market. Even with a global pandemic, businesses with the broadest diversity of clients have been most resilient.
  2. There are always opportunities; the key is being able to pivot your businesses to take advantage of them.
  3. A peer group of like-minded exporters is essential for support and brainstorming.

4. What international trade opportunities do you see for your member organisations and which regions are likely to see increased exchange with British businesses as a result of the pandemic?

In part, it is new geographies and I am a big fan of the emerging markets but finding new routes to market, especially in the current times, will be key.

The opportunities lie in new ways of doing things to leapfrog challenges, which were already present, but have been brought into sharp focus by the pandemic. For example, driving the digitisation of trade, remote logistics solutions (e.g. UAV deliveries), 3D printing, taking a different view on risk.

5. How can parliamentarians work with you to strengthen the work you are doing post Covid-19?

Support from parliamentarians is key. It is still very hard for small businesses to get the funding they need for developing export markets and financing the contracts. There is a strong suite of products available from UKEF but they struggle with the bandwidth which is required for smaller transactions and remain more tailored to the needs of industries they are used to supporting, or larger corporations who have the resources for structuring complex transactions.

As we have seen from the CBILs scheme, even with an 80% guarantee from the Government, banks were slow to lend and only after significant pressure from all sides did things start to flow. The same pressure and significance should be given to export finance using the CBILs and Bounceback loans to drive trade and get more companies exporting – this will be a benefit to us all.

The advantage of UKEF backed transactions is that they provide funding which gives the UK a competitive edge, but without this being extended to more and more lenders who are willing to take risks on smaller businesses without crippling security requirements, there will be a challenge.

Joined up thinking from Government departments remains key but the overriding ask is engagement and working with businesses through organisations like BExA to really and truly ensure exporters needs are met to make the UK a leading exporting nation in the new post EU and Covid era. Through this dialogue it is equally important for the exporting community to understand how they can support parliamentarians to get the results that we collectively need.