Nick de Bois is Chairman of the governments new Events Industry Board, and was MP for Enfield North from 2010 to 2015.
During the last parliament, I was very much a cheerleader for the Government’s determination to boost UK exports and the ambitious target of one trillion pounds worth of exports by 2020.
After the general election the Tories renewed their commitment to this effort and adding the supplementary challenge of seeing the number of UK firms exporting increase from some 200,000 to 300,000.
Today however we read that Lord Maude, the Trade Minister responsible for exports, is leaving his post some nine months after his appointment with few believing that the export targets can be met.
They are indeed now referred to as “stretch” targets and he leaves acknowledging that the latest trade data “isn’t good”. The FT today argues that his decision to cut the DTI budget from £299 million to £277 million should therefore be questioned.
That however is too easy a target for critics, and pre-supposes that expanding a government agency equals outstanding results.
Previous trade ministers rightly deserve credit for reforming UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) as a more efficient organisation, something taxpayers rightly expect.
There are substantial numbers of “front line” UKTI staff in the field trying to encourage British firms to export, and more (but by no means enough) government departments embracing exporting. Trade Envoys have also been appointed from amongst peers and MPs, whose job it is to sell and promote British business and skill sets.
So far so good, but as noted export figures remain disappointing. Maude however complains that exporting is not in the “DNA” of the British company, and that we should be prepared to learn and copy from more punchy rivals such as France and Germany.
Perhaps the biggest service the next minister for trade could do, however, is recognise that both the Government’s message and (more importantly) the messenger should change.
Exporting is a huge leap for some companies, not least the small and medium sized companies. Barriers to exporting come in all shapes and sizes, some outside the scope of government to do much about and others well within the hands of politicians to change.
Of course negotiating free trade agreements are crucial, as is easing access to finance, and making sure when we do export we can at least get an aeroplane to our destination.
Yet that’s not the first thing a businessman or woman thinks of when he or she takes his or her first step to exporting.
More likely they will reflect that exporting may be time consuming, riskier than the domestic market, and harder to achieve. How do I reach new customers? Will I get paid? Where is the best opportunity for me? Can I build on the one customer I have found in another country? Who can advise me? These questions are most likely uppermost in the mind.
If we are to help them overcome these perceived barriers, then the argument needs to be convincing and delivered by a credible source.
By their own admission UKTI need to reach more potential exporters – and when they do, they definitely have to up the conversion rate from prospect to exporter.
The current messenger may not suit the target audience, and I have long argued for government to capitalise on the wealth of exporting talent that have made the leap and faced both the difficulties – and the rewards – of reaching international markets.
These are the people prospective exporters will identify with, and who stand the best chance of converting virgin businesses to export.
However passionate and supportive staff from the ministry are (and they are), the confidence one business owner will get from another who has trod the exporting path will generate a greater return on efforts for the UKTI and the government.
As any communications expert will tell you: get the messenger right, and there is more chance that the message will resonate with the target audience.
Let UKTI focus on identifying the prospects, the most suitable market opportunities, and providing practical support that new exporters need, but use the convening power of the trade minister and his Department to bring business people together to make the case for exporting.
UKTI have proved they can reach prospects, but they have not been able to deliver the conversions needed to raise the number of exporting companies from 200,000 to 300,000. In fact we may actually be heading for a fall in numbers, and that is not good for British business or the Government.
Both David Cameron and Sajid Javid embrace the message that Britain is open for business and willing to re-build its trading roots. But it is the job of every Government figure to embrace the growth agenda, profile and sell our skills abroad, and open the doors for British companies.
Lord Maud complained in the FT today that “Britain should learn from its rivals in Europe, including possibly copying the French government’s willingness to be much more upfront about endorsing an offer for a major contract, including providing export finance.
The Germans, he added, were “brilliant” at exporting: “They are there very quick, they are focused, they are there in force. Exporting is in their DNA.”
Ministers right across government must take the lead by ensuring we support our companies at trade missions, visit trade shows both home and abroad, and support bids for contracts.
If Government is truly in partnership with business to reach these “stretch” export targets then, whilst all the key foundations are in place, the next trade minister has his work cut out.