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East Midlands Chamber News

Taking advantage of ‘Brand UK’: The East Midlands businesses already trading globally

The end of the UK-EU transition period ushers in a new era for international trade as Britain sets its horizons beyond Europe. Dan Robinson speaks to some of the East Midlands companies already taking advantage of “Brand UK” to export successfully across the globe.


Rapid Covid-19 tests help SureScreen Diagnostics to broaden global horizons

Across the world, businesses, universities and clinics are carrying out antigen swab tests to diagnose whether individuals are infected with coronavirus, and finger prick tests for detecting antibodies that indicate they’ve previously had it.

They are sourced globally but one of Europe’s highest volume developers of these Covid-19 rapid diagnostic kits is based in Derby.

SureScreen Diagnostics says its tests, which take less than 20 minutes combined to carry out and receive results, are 98% accurate.

Since the summer, the antibody tests have been used daily at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals, in London, after King’s College London found they performed “outstandingly” during examinations.

“They’re very straightforward to use, which means they’re very versatile for where they can be deployed,” says SureScreen director David Campbell.

“We have a lot of top validations from global institutions demonstrating our test is the best in the world.”

As well as making a vital contribution to tackling the pandemic – many countries believe rapid testing, alongside vaccination, are needed to defeat coronavirus – the long-term benefits for SureScreen could be pivotal.

The company, founded in 1996, had already earned a solid reputation for its point-of-care tests –those providing lab-quality results within minutes of deployment – for pregnancy, illicit drug and alcohol screening.

Read this article in Business Network magazine

It was also on the map beyond the UK, with 40% of sales overseas. But while four-fifths of its exports have traditionally been to the EU, Covid-19 looks set to broaden its horizons after shipping millions of the rapid tests around the world.

The antibody tests have been used in 53 countries, including Germany, Spain, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, South Africa, Peru and Panama, while the antigen kits are already in more than 20 markets after launching in October.

David Campbell

With an increase in demand, SureScreen has been one of the few firms to recruit during the pandemic, taking on about 40 staff to help with production – pushing headcount beyond 100 across five sites.

“The Covid-19 tests have certainly expanded our horizons,” says David. “We’re shipping a lot to South America and the Middle East, and as far as Australia, so it’s opened up new regions.

“Of course, we hope these tests can be used to reduce the infection rate, and get people back to work and enjoying normal life.

“But going forward, we’ve built lots of good connections so in the future we’ll be working with them on our wider range of unique diagnostic tests we’re bringing to market.”

These include a finger prick diagnostic that identifies alcohol levels in blood within three minutes, rather than the current two-hour period. David hopes it could alleviate pressure on A&E departments as paramedics can rapidly diagnose a problem without admitting them to hospital.

While the unknowns of Brexit remain a concern, he’s optimistic for the future, adding: “The pandemic has brought testing to the forefront of people’s minds so there could be more opportunities for us as people recognise how testing can prevent issues before they happen.

“But it’s the classic idea that when one door closes, another opens. There’s a lot of negativity around Brexit but companies need to adapt and there will be opportunities out there for businesses, particularly for British-made products, so it’s about seizing them.”

Why Morningside Pharmaceuticals focuses on foreign aid in its exports market

Dr Nik Kotecha OBE shares David’s confidence in how far “Brand UK” can travel.

His business Morningside Pharmaceuticals is no stranger to exporting, having manufactured generic and branded medicines, as well as other healthcare products, for global distribution since 1991.

“In markets like Africa and the Caribbean, medicines were coming from the Far East and local manufacturers, but they had no standards,” he says.

“But the reputation of the UK for quality goods in other countries is phenomenal. We’ve built our business around Brand UK as we realised there was a market for high-quality medicines in low-income countries.”

Dr Nik Kotecha

Unlike most international traders that will move into exports after conquering their domestic market, Dr Kotecha started with 100% exports – sending medicines to Commonwealth nations like Guyana that understood “Brand UK”.

It was only later when the UK became a key market and, although exports only account for 15% of turnover now, he attributes this to mastering the domestic logistics operation, with about 90 of its 230 licensed drugs sent to every British hospital and pharmacy twice a day.

The export business, driven by a focus on international aid to developing countries, remains stronger than ever, due in no small part to having some of the most competitive prices.

While big pharma will pour huge amounts of money into R&D to make medicines, once its patent runs out it opens the door to manufacturers like Morningside to make so-called generic versions of the drugs for far cheaper prices, despite being identical.

This is what gives the Loughborough-based firm its mission statement of “making high-quality healthcare affordable and accessible throughout the world”, enabling it to export to 120 countries over the past three decades.

Former Prime Minister Theresa May hailed it as the “best of British” during a trade mission to India in 2016 and it’s a past winner of the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in international trade.

Dr Kotecha says: “A lot of companies would go straight to Europe and the US, but I saw bigger opportunities in other countries. We’re probably the only company dedicated to medicines for international aid.

“If there’s an earthquake somewhere in the world, the World Health Organisation or Unicef come to us to buy the medicines, so we export to every corner of the globe.

“The UK has been so reliant on Europe and Ireland for many years but there’s so many opportunities in these markets.

“As their economies grow, we can sell more into them. Just look at China – its economy has grown to the extent that there’s more people buying Louis Vuitton there than anywhere else in the world.”

Dr Kotecha’s knack for international trading – he admits exporting refrigerated products into countries with sweltering temperatures like Angola and Sierra Leone isn’t easy – have earned him plenty of recognition.

He sits on the boards of the Leicester and Leicestershire Local Enterprise Partnership and CBI East Midlands Council, chairs the Chamber’s Brexit Advisory Group, and is an “export champion” for the Department for International Trade.

He’s an avid believer in UK plc continuing to invest and recruit during tough times – Morningside has added 12 senior people to its 180-strong workforce in 2020, including a new CEO, CFO and COO – and says companies should be prepared to diversify for different markets.

“The opportunity for us to export as a nation is huge,” he adds. “Brand UK is about our ethics and ways of doing business – people appreciate those things and they want to work with us.”

Dive deep into your export markets

Learning the subtle cultural differences of markets has been key to the success of Artisan Biscuits, believes co-owner John Siddall.

He found this out when the Ashbourne-based business, which dates back to the 1930s but only began exporting in 2001, started selling its My Favourite Bear brand of “fun biscuits” overseas.

In western markets like the US and Australia, the bear-shaped flavoured snacks and their cartoon packaging have been targeted at parents of toddlers.

Aristan Biscuits makes the My Favourite Bear biscuits

But in Japan, where they are sold in the premium Plaza Style department stores, the main customers have instead been so-called “office ladies” – women aged 18 to 40 who shop for items making them feel “younger”.

“In some countries, the whole concept of children’s biscuits has no meaning,” adds John. “We sell them in Germany but in Denmark they don’t have this market.

“What’s interesting is the East is a sweet region but the West is a predominantly savoury region.

“Norway has no sweet culture at all so there’s virtually no chocolate.”

As with cheese and crackers, Artisan Biscuits complements its Bath-based parent company, the Fine Cheese Co.

But while the companies – which together have a £10m turnover and employ 200 people – will target many locations in unison, cultural complexities dictate this isn’t always the case.

John says: “In South-East Asia, there’s markets where people don’t eat much cheese, so our biscuits that are supposed to go well with cheese don’t get many sales there – whereas these are big sectors in the UK and Scandinavia.

“We only put English and Japanese languages on the packets in China because they think Chinese products aren’t very good quality, and identify everything from England and Japan as good quality.”

John Siddall

In all those markets, ranges like My Favourite Bear, Elegant & English, Grate Britain and The Fine Cookie Co will most likely be found in high-end retailers and hotel chains – whether it’s David Jones in Australia, Market Kurly in South Korea, Meny in Norway, La Rinascente in Italy, El Corte Ingles in Spain, The Fresh Market in the US or Taj Hotels in India.

A reputation for excellence – “there’s nobody else in the world who makes higher quality products than we do because we handbake using the best quality ingredients, and we use them generously” –has helped carry Artisan Biscuits beyond these shores.

This year, 1.3 million packs of biscuits, crackers, cookies and toasts will be exported, accounting for 40% of sales. Half of these are to the EU, trailed by North America and South-East Asia.

“The Middle East is growing and Japan is our second biggest market after the US, while South Korea is moving up extremely fast too,” says John, whose company also sold heavily to airlines pre-Covid.

“It tends to be the affluent and most sophisticated markets and we’ll be in the centre of the biggest cities.”

Stateside success for db automation and Premier Bowl Feeders

Like Oasis and Robbie Williams, the ambition of “breaking America” has been a step too far for many successful UK businesses despite pumping in huge sums across the pond.

So how exactly does Lutterworth-based db automation and Premier Bowl Feeders, sister companies in the automation space with no stateside sales presence, manage to make 60% of its turnover in the US?

MD Nick Parker and mechanical design manager Peter Johnson

“The machinery we produce has been very well thought of by our US clients for a long time,” says Nick Parker, managing director of the two companies. “It started with the UK branch of an American company using our machines and then they’ve returned to us time and again, and brought us new clients through word of mouth.

“It’s certainly quite rare for such a high proportion of our business to come from the US and have no sales presence out there.”

Not that Nick is getting complacent, with a plan to add a service and support arm in the central band of the States sometime in the near future, enabling engineers to carry out on-site installation and maintenance.

Premier Bowl Feeders produces feeding solutions for automation machinery, while db automation manufactures bespoke automation systems for the pharmaceutical, medical and ocular sectors.

The two companies – which employ 20 and have been part of the Suffolk-based PCE Group since 2018 – were named the Leicestershire Business of the Year at the Chamber’s Business Awards last month. This followed a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in international trade earlier this year.

Nick believes alliances with other SMEs, and becoming an incumbent supplier for a multinational, are key for manufacturers to gain exposure to other nations.

He adds: “There’s certainly new opportunities opening up across the world. The EU is convenient because it’s close, but we should be looking far and wide.”

Top tips for finding new international markets

Dr Nik Kotecha OBE

Look for the low-hanging fruits

“If you have a technical or high-value product like medicine, there’s massive opportunities in markets like the Middle East, Africa and Caribbean, where there’s a demand for high-quality products. You can also move into these markets quickly, whereas in the US or Europe it can take a few years to get a licence.”

Talk to people

“My business was built on travelling and meeting people. I always say ‘touch it, feel it, do it’ – you need to be in that market to understand it before you can sell into it. When you visit the country, you see the culture, how the distributor or agent you’re dealing with behaves, and can see where your products are being stored.”

John Siddall

Don’t think of it as exporting

“Just think of it as selling, but in another country. This helps you to take the same approach to how you would sell your product domestically, in terms of getting to understand the market and the different types of consumers.”

Be persistent

“When we first started to have an interest in the US, we exhibited at trade shows. People said the Americans aren’t going to take you seriously if you just go to one show because they meet so many people at these shows and then never see them again. They expect to see you in year one, two, three, four and five – and sometimes it can take more than that before they eventually take you seriously. So exporting is like a courtship, not a one-night stand.”

How East Midlands Chamber can help businesses realise their international dreams

International trade advisors at the Chamber can help businesses realise their exporting ambitions through support services and staff training courses.

The ChamberCustoms brokerage service helps firms to get goods across borders and the expanding consultancy service provides advice on activities such as setting up overseas subsidiaries, foreign exchange, and reviews for customs compliance and freight.

Meanwhile, the Enterprise Europe Network team assists the region’s most innovative companies in creating partnerships and opportunities in Europe and beyond.

To contact the Chamber’s international team, call 0333 320 0333 (option 4) or email international@emc-dnl.co.uk.


This article appears in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of the Chamber's Business Network magazine. To read the online edition, click here.