Shipping office services, helpline, consultancy and supply chain security

Friday, 31 May 2013


So vegetarians like a slice of ham to garnish the top of their omelettes, and meat in their tomato soup do they? Those things have actually happened when on family holidays in Portugal and the Netherlands respectively. My wife and son are both vegetarians, my daughter and I carnivores. My wife will eat fish. My son will not, but has always been happy to stuff himself full of artisan bread and local cheese delicacies. Both are very healthy. My daughter and I became accustomed to vegetarian food twenty years ago or more because logistically it meant cooking just one meal rather than two being doled out at every meal time, and for a full year from March 20th 2012 I decided to ‘go veggie’. Well, very nearly. I believe the term for a vegetarian who eats fish is ‘pescatarian’ which is what I have done and continue to do, but as it’s hard enough to explain vegetarianism in cafes and restaurants I felt pescatarianism might lead to confusion!

I find it fascinating that in a world where there is so much vegetarianism, that there can still be such diverse attitudes towards those who travel but do not eat meat, not to mention the often limited menu options as you travel between countries. We’ve had all kinds of reactions from ‘but you must eat meat or you will not be healthy’ to ‘we can probably do you an omelette’ or plain ‘we do not cater for vegetarians’, which is all a bit bizarre considering that our digestive systems are not actually designed to process meat. We were all vegetarians once…or should that be pescatarians?

I took a Finnair flight to Helsinki from Manchester recently, and ordered a vegetarian option in advance for both the outward and return journeys. On the outward journey, the stewardess arrived at my seat and said ‘I believe you have ordered a special meal’. Well no I hadn’t actually but I wasn’t going to make an issue of it. I had ordered the vegetarian option that Finnair offered. I half expected the see a pack with ‘Weird Food for Seat C14’ but it was just a cheese salad sandwich in a clear plastic bag. Nothing so unusual about that. Nothing ‘special’.

My eldest sister and her (still extremely healthy) family were trailblazing vegetarians in the meat and two veg 1970’s, or at least that’s how the rest of came to think of them. Apart from vegetables, nuts, and the right sort of bread, their food choices were relatively limited at that time, and there was talk within the wider family that they had to survive on budgie seed! Those attitudes have mainly been left behind as vegetarian choices in the UK, both in the supermarkets and independent shops, and in cafes, pubs and restaurants have become so much better. However, it is only when you travel widely that you realise that vegetarians in some other countries don’t have it so good, where others are in vegetarian heaven!

Even as a non-vegetarian I have found myself constantly weighing up the vegetarian offers, because it’s in my blood now. And it varies from city to city as well as from country to country. For example, I found Moscow quite challenging for vegetarians but not so St. Petersburg, although in general terms the more cosmopolitan cities offer the best variety of vegetarian and vegan food. It is really important to research where you are going before you go, to locate the nearest source of vegetarian food, whether a restaurant or a supermarket, but also to stock up on essentials and carry them with you if you happen to be travelling for a while. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s I travelled a great deal in Germany where in the smaller cities meat dishes were invariably not served with any kind of vegetable or salad leaf, which didn’t bother me at the time. It was also tough during that time to find a good variety vegetarian food across Portugal, Spain, and in France. But on my more recent trips, I have almost always been able to find good vegetarian food at the local supermarkets, so times and tastes change. Conversely, travelling in India was a complete delight because most meals offered tended to be vegetarian.

After a year of being a ‘pescatarian’, and almost a lifetime of having to find vegetarian alternatives, I have some empathy with those whose travel experiences are affected by the type of food that they are able to eat, either on ethical or health grounds, so now I am a Born Again Carnivore I thought I’d include a few links here by way of supporting those who aren’t:

Happy Travelling!

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Stranded in Exile

Remoteness from colleagues is an occupational fact of life for many exporting professionals. Very often, it’s our lot to be the point of connection between the business and its customers in distant places, and even in an age of superfast communications, it can sometimes seem almost impossible to maintain the links.
In colonial times, the term ‘going native’ was sometimes used to describe a representative in another country who adopted the customs or lifestyles of the local community. It’s potentially quite an offensive phrase to use in some circumstances these days, as it seems to imply a notion of inferiority. But organisations who employ individuals or small teams in countries away from their base still risk the consequences of allowing a cultural divide to develop within their own business.
It should be self-evident that, in order to be effective, the employees within an organisation need to work together as a team to shared objectives.  But while any organisation that operates in more than one country needs to be sensitive to cultural differences, it also needs to ensure that they don’t dilute or deflect from overall goals.
In many ways, it is easier to maintain a team spirit across long distances than ever before. Whereas colonialists had to rely on written communication that often took months to arrive, twenty first century facilities such as Skype, teleconferencing and online collaboration make keeping in touch almost as easy, affordable and effortless as getting up and talking to someone in the next office.
But without a special effort to include everyone, the technology can actually increase the sense of exclusion that can be demotivating for remote workers as well as a feeling for managers of such workers that they are unable to control or direct their subordinates. In a single-site operation, a lot of communication happens at very informal levels. Greeting a colleague in the car park, sharing a joke at the coffee machine, such trivialities help to build familiarity in ways that are rarely possible when there is a large physical distance between people.
Even in the best of worlds, communication is hard work. If we are honest with ourselves, we all know that there are often times when we have misunderstood a comment or request from someone, or failed to make ourselves completely clear when we have asked for something. This natural weakness can easily be multiplied several times over when we don’t have the luxury of being in each other’s presence every working day. Managers of remote workers need to take steps to make up for this by making sure that communications are clear, frequent and unambiguous. At the same time, they need to overcome the inevitable lack of the human touch that can be felt from an absence of informality. Remote workers themselves need to do their bit, by reporting regularly, even when they may feel there is little of importance to say.
In my experience, there is no substitute for the spoken word. It should be the most frequently used media. Now that international telephone calls are no longer the expense they once were, managers should make a point of calling team members regularly, keeping them up to date with local events and even a bit of office gossip, as well as listening carefully to any concerns and ideas. Take time to build and maintain a rapport. If the colleague has a passion for sport, check out how their team got on. If there’s a celebration in the office, mention it. Ask about family, the weather, holidays, in fact talk about all the things you would be talking about if the colleague were there in the same building. In spite of all the technological advances, many of us are still guilty of treating international calls as nothing more than message taking.
It’s important to bear in mind time differences in such communications. If colleagues are on opposite sides of the world, it’s friendly to arrange to alternate the time of calls so that one person is not always taking them outside of their normal working hours.
After each call, take a few minutes to note down anything important. If any actions were agreed, follow up with a quick email.
Make a commitment to meet regularly during the year. It’s vitally important for the manager to visit the employee in their territory, and equally for the employee to make regular trips to the head office.
When there is major news, such as new product launches, a new recruit, a change in policy or anything that impacts significantly on how the employee should be carrying out their job, special care needs to be taken that the news is well communicated and its implications fully understood.
    It can’t be denied that it has never been easier for a business to operate in more than one country. But effective communication still doesn’t happen automatically. With care and dedication, an employee working remotely doesn’t need to feel remote from  the base and can in fact be just as integral in the team as everyone else 

Friday, 24 May 2013


There is a whole range of methods available to us through our banks that help us to ensure, insofar as is possible, that our international customers pay on time for goods and services they have purchased from us. But the ultimate responsibility for getting paid on time rests with each and every one of us who sells into international markets.  There can be no passing the buck!

It’s all about relationships: the relationship with your bank to facilitate the right payment mechanisms; with your freight forwarders to ensure shipments and documents are supplied in a timely and accurate basis; with your credit insurance company to insure your international orders; with your local Chamber of Commerce to help with external documents such as Certificates of Origin; and your solicitors for setting out your payment terms and any necessary contracts.

However, one relationship that is frequently overlooked in ensuring regular and on time payment is the most important relationship - between you and your customer. It is sometimes difficult to establish the right level of trust when entering into a new international business relationship. You and your customer want different things: your preference would be to be paid in advance; your customer would prefer to pay after taking delivery. So if you want to build that relationship and achieve regular, repeat orders, you have to find some middle ground.

Many companies are too rigid about being paid in their own currency, delivering on an Ex-Works basis, or both. These are things that can send negative signals to your international customers, because both issues are very easily overcome, and there is a wealth of regulation to ensure the safe use of alternative currencies and delivery terms. It is difficult to build a long term spirit of trust when your starting point seems to be the word ‘no’: “no, I’m sorry, I won’t accept payment in euros””; no, I’m sorry, our terms are Ex-works”.  You have to be much more flexible than that to engender trust, and for your customers to feel comfortable about placing repeat orders with your business.

There are so many things that can determine the best method, and the best likelihood, of getting paid. The destinations country can be a key factor in determining the method of payment: customers in India, South East Asia, the Middle East, many African nations, are accustomed to paying for goods by means of Letter of Credit (LC), and this is a suitable and safe option for larger orders from those areas. LCs ring-fence your customer’s payment for your goods through the banking system, the agreed delivery terms trigger the payment period, and LCs negate the need for credit insurance. So they can be a very useful tool, for orders with a value greater than £10,000.

As it is not always possible or practical to insist on payment by Letter of Credit, companies need to be able to offer a range of payment alternatives, ranging from payment in advance to payment against documents, to term payments, through to open account. When I worked with a new distributor in Turkey, the first orders were paid for either by LC for large orders or in advance for smaller orders. After a period of good payment performance and in order to help the distributor win more business, I offered 60 day payment terms on an open account basis for up to £10,000 of orders at any one time, with the understanding that a single default would result in a return to payment in advance. It worked, and helped to build a strong bond of trust and friendship between us for many years afterwards.

Trust is an amazing thing, and makes both for long term business and personal friendships. Another such friendship began to develop with one of my best distributors when he phoned my office one day to advise that because his main customer had defaulted on payment, he would need a longer period of time to settle my invoices. “I’ve heard this one before” I thought. But more than that, he told me as soon as the problem arose, and further, he proposed a plan that would ensure stage payments that would bring his account back into order within three months. He was as good as his word, and our business and friendship developed in tandem from that point, and payment was never a problem. 

So the message is that the closer you are to the business of your selling partners, the more care you take to understand their needs, and the more they understand yours, the less you will need to spend in time and resource chasing overdue payments.  It is unlikely that you will be able to apply one set of payment terms universally, but by being sensibly flexible you will find the right method for each of the markets where you sell.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

UK Taxes - Myth or Magic?

Did you know that a report is published every month showing the yield from each of the UK’s taxes -   It is a bit of a myth buster!

From it, I can see that in 2002, when the VAT rate was 17.5%, VAT contributed £63.026Bn or 20% of taxation revenue.  In 2012, the VAT rate was 20%, the yield £98.292Bn or 21% of taxation revenue. So we’re paying about 50% more tax overall than we did ten years ago – horrific!

The respective yields of taxes in percentage terms, have remained about the same over the last ten years, with Income Tax (including PAYE, capital gains tax and NICs) bringing in 54%, VAT 21%, Corporation Tax 9%, Oils 6%, stamp taxes 2%, tobacco duties 2% and alcohol duties 2%  That leaves 4% for “others”.  One of the “big taxes”, Inheritance Tax, yielded just £2.917Bn or less than two thirds of one per cent of total taxation yield.  This also indicates that an awful lot of time and hot air, especially at Budget time, is expended on taxes that really yield very little – time to start clearing out some of them.

Friday, 17 May 2013


 ‘Getting paid’ is frequently cited as one of the main challenges for exporting companies. My own experience is that I have had more domestic than international bad payers, better payers from Nigeria and Russia than from Nottingham and Reading. But I guess everyone will have different stories to tell.

In a nutshell, Credit Insurance exists to protect businesses from non-payment of invoices, and can be a useful tool in helping to develop trust relationships with new overseas selling partners. My first experience of the value of credit insurance came when I started work as Export Sales Manager for a textile company. Our biggest ‘export’ customer was a distributor in Ireland who had really enjoyed a life of Reilly for some time, stretching payment terms and exceeding their insured credit limit, and generally giving my predecessor the runaround. Well as a new kid on the block you want to start with a clean slate don’t you? I looked at each export account and quickly realised that our biggest export customer was also our biggest export problem!

So when they wanted their next order to be released I blocked it, refusing to allow any goods to move out of our warehouse in their direction until they had paid out sufficient invoices to bring their account back within the terms of the credit insurance cover that Atradius provided. It can be quite funny, if also a little sad, listening to excuses and promises when somebody knows they’ve been rumbled, and it was all hot air and a waste of telephone time, because in the end the goods were not going anywhere until the money was paid.

Those decisions pretty well finished the relationship with the distributor because they had been biting off more than they could chew with large Irish contracts for far too long, so I had some hairy moments explaining that away while simultaneously spreading the risk across a larger number of more reliable selling partners. However, because I had forced the issue and ensured that payments were back within agreed limits, when the company finally did go bang the following year, Atradius paid out 85% of our exposure – significantly better than the alternative!

Each company has to make its own judgement as to whether or not credit insurance is right for them. Some prefer to self-insure or to provide open account facilities because they know well the reputations of their selling partners. Some might opt for the security of payment by Letter of Credit (LC) for larger orders. Others prefer to be paid in advance because they do not have sufficient trust in their selling partners. Experience teaches us that there is no single right answer, therefore I have tended to apply for credit insurance cover when I have felt it is needed, and also to give new distributors a little flexibility in order to demonstrate payment performance.

I worked very successfully with a Turkish distributor for a number of years. At first, payment terms were payment either in advance or by LC. As the relationship built and strengthened, and because we could not obtain credit insurance at that time, we agreed a £10,000 open account limit so that the distributor could take smaller, regular orders, with all remaining orders being paid for by LC. After three years of successful trading and on time payments, the open account limit was increased and we were able to achieve a small amount of credit insurance cover. The insurers looked at the usual criteria of country risk, company risk, etc., but also at the way the account had been managed between ourselves and the distributor. By building a relationship with the credit insurer we were able to give them the confidence that offering limited cover was worth their risk. 

That illustrates one incidence where initial refusal by the credit insurer did not necessarily reflect on the distributor’s willingness or ability to pay their bills on time. It is very important to note that credit insurance can be refused for a whole variety of reasons, and that decisions can change according to political and economic circumstances, and individual company performance. I was once refused credit insurance on a French distributor who the company had been working with for many years before I joined.

The reason for the refusal was not a reflection of their payment record, but more a question of the total exposure to Atradius of that one distributor. They distributed a wide range of products into the French construction sector, and a number of other companies had beaten me to the draw, each securing credit insurance on their business with them. So the insurance company looked at the collective risk of all those policies, and took the decision that they were already risking enough!

Why did I suddenly apply for credit insurance cover on a distributor who had been working with my company for some time? Well it is quite simple. A distributor whose track record was with regular smaller orders suddenly won a much larger order, and it was necessary to ensure that the company had the ability to pay. My choice became a simple commercial one, whether to accept the order or risk losing prestigious business with Societe Generale in the Trocadero Building in Paris. So we agreed stage payments that helped to minimise the risk of non-payment, with the amount of the first payment being covered by a Bill of Exchange, and covering our manufacturing costs.

So what are the lessons learned:

  •  Don’t take a refusal of credit insurance as necessarily a negative thing
  • Be prepared to use a variety of methods of securing international payments
  • Manage your accounts within agreed insurance limits

Tuesday, 14 May 2013


All of my case studies are taken from practical experience and have, to date, been concerned with taking positive approaches to developing international business. I thought it might be useful to discuss a negative situation that occurred due to my poor judgment and management skills. Something for others to avoid.

The problem occurred over the change of a distributor. For a number of years my company had tolerated the moderate, but never poor, performance of our contracted distributor.  If we wanted to change there were no obvious choices as he worked in a small island country.

Whilst exhibiting at a regional Trade Show I was approached by a distributor from the same country. Whilst he expressed interest in handling our products and was aware of our current distributor, he was not set up to handle our type of products. He indicated he was about to expand and develop his operation and would be soon handling similar but non-competing products to our own. After some useful discussions I expressed a possible future interest but would like to assess his business potential once the new operation was up and running. We agreed to keep an open contact.

A number of years later it was clear the second distributor had set up a good operation acquiring a number of prestigious principals though none competed directly with our business. At the same time our existing distributor worked in his traditional way and we now believed it was necessary to change if we were ever going to increase our presence in that country.

I set up an exploratory meeting with second distributor out of market to establish his interest and agree, in principle, trading terms and requirements. The subsequent meeting was very positive and there were good reasons for both parties to proceed. For a number of operational reasons it was critical I physically visited his premises to ascertain his capability to handle effectively our product range. Changing any distributor is an important decision and I needed to make sure it was the right one.

I also wanted to ensure, from the outset, the new distributor was fully aware of our requirements and the attention we paid to getting the business right. I also wanted to ensure that in a relatively small business community both distributors were handled correctly in this matter. I agreed an outline transfer plan with the new distributor. Following a satisfactory visit to his premises, I would commence the process of terminating the current distributor’s contract.

It was at this point things went very wrong.

Having agreed a date for a short one day visit, I asked my secretary, who was aware of the situation, to book flights and confirm details to him.

On the day in question, I landed early at their local airport and passed quickly through immigration & customs. On entering the arrivals area I was met directly by the smiling face of my existing distributor and over his shoulder I could see the concerned look of my potential new distributor. It was one of those moments when you literally wish the ground to swallow you up.

I approached my existing distributor and carried out as normal a greeting as possible trying to ensure he was unaware of any possible problem. I mentioned that I had seen the other distributor in the background and said I would like a quick word with him. I approached the ‘potential’ distributor and pointed out there had been a mix-up but could I see him later in the day to pick up on matters. He kindly agreed. On returning to my existing distributor we then drove to his premises to commence a normal market visit programme. It became clear that the situation had been caused by my secretary confirming the visit to the wrong distributor. It was not her fault as I then realised I had not specified to whom the confirmation should be made.

I asked my distributor if I could take a little time off later in the day to visit the market on my own to familiarise with some local business. I later met with the ‘potential’ distributor, explained what had occurred and though it was now an abbreviated meeting I did view his facilities. The visit did confirm that change would be for the better. We agreed that due to the circumstances in the morning that we should let the dust settle for a few months but start to quietly prepare for a changeover.

I then continued with the visit to my existing distributor and completed the day accordingly. Whilst I do not believe that I had fooled my distributor, the matter of my arrival earlier that day was never discussed.

A number of months later, during a personal visit, I did formally notify the distributor of our decision to conclude his contract with us. He expressed no surprise at this decision nor to the fact we would be changing to the other distributor. His greatest concerns were to avoid loss of face and seek suitable recompense. We were able to accommodate his wishes.

Looking back at the incident I consider myself to be lucky. The existing distributor, regardless of his business performance, was a very pleasant, passive individual who would not normally seek issues or confrontations. Someone else, less affable, could have made that particular day very difficult for me.

So are there any learning points or is it just a matter of ensuring better communication with a secretary? I believe there is more.

The process of changing a distributor is not to be taken lightly. There have to be very sound reasons to do this bearing in mind potential negative impact on your business and, in particular, on your local relations with the local trade. The whole process needs to be fully planned and serious consideration given to how much time should or could be spent in-market visiting a potential distributor. In any market it will be surprising if someone is not aware of what was happening which could lead to uncontrolled rumours.

In the main I have enjoyed good and long business relationships with my distributors but when a change is required much care has to be taken.

Friday, 10 May 2013


I’d been with our distributor in Moscow for several days. There were four reasons for my visit: first so that they could learn more about our products, second so I could learn more about how they operated as a company, third so that my colleague and I could make a presentation to Russian architects at the British Embassy, and fourth to identify ways in which my presence would help them to sell more of my product. The company had offices in a number of Russian cities, from St. Petersburg to Tomsk, and then south to Krasnodar on the Black Sea and into Ukraine, and occasionally several of their regional staff would fly into Moscow for management meetings and company presentations. These were useful gatherings that really helped in putting across the key selling points of the products that they were distributing for us.

I was driven from the airport straight to a meeting with one of their major clients. On arrival we sat in a waiting room with a number of competitive companies, all of us hoping to win the right to supply flooring products to their new offices. I was armed with my briefcase containing a couple of brochures and some technical leaflets, and my distributor carried just one of our blue carpet tiles. Our three competitors had arrived with trolley loads of samples with which to bamboozle and impress this prestigious customer, so I felt decidedly under-prepared!

However, selling isn’t just about the number and variety of things that you are able to show, it’s about grabbing the customer’s attention and holding it while you convey the reasons why a) they should buy your products, and b) why they should buy from your company. Too many salespeople try and sell everything and anything in their portfolios, but that can often signal lack of confidence to the buyer, who would prefer that the products presented are both fit for purpose, readily available, and offered at a good price. So with my one tile, my file of technical leaflets, and my experience of our range of products, I was able to make a good pitch. It must have been okay because I was invited to meet them again the following day and show them a few more of our samples, and we went on to win some business from them.

The experience showed me that although there was no doubt we were working with the best distributor of commercial interior products in Russia, there were still deficiencies in the way they presented our products. And that led me to wondering what other things were maybe not being said. On my penultimate day with the distributor I asked to see their warehouse on the pretext that I wanted to see the conditions in which our products were stored. When they seemed a little evasive about that my request turned into more of a demand, and by the following morning had metamorphosed into a determination to take a taxi out there if they didn’t take me themselves!

So we arrived at their warehouse en route to the airport, and it was more like a cold storage unit. Absolutely freezing, and not the best conditions in which to hold our pallets of carpet tiles. There were two things that were immediately obvious on entering the building. The first was that our products were lost among multiple pallets of products from a competitor whom we were supposed to have replaced. The second was that some of the pallets that we had supplied had broken, and this had caused damage to some of our products. That was entirely our fault because the pallets were not sturdy enough, and we were able to correct the situation. The distributor went on to sell a lot of carpet tiles for us after that visit, and on later visits it became clear that our products were their product of preference, even though they continued to sell for our competitors.


Part of the reason for that success was that we invited ten of their managers over to Manchester for three days of product and sales training, which their MD was delighted to support. Those few days gave us the opportunity to present the technical and aesthetic properties of our products in detail, without interruption, and to demonstrate methods that we employed both in winning specifications for our products in commercial buildings, and in maximising the profitability of each project. We had employed a superb interpreter, thanks to a reference from UK Trade & Investment, and she overheard one of the group saying “we have never been taught to sell like this before”. That team went on to become the company’s most important export distributor in the following year.

So the main messages from this are that you should be prepared both to know as much as possible your distributor’s operations, and to empower them to sell your product to maximum effect. In this case, a little investment went a very long way!

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

What is the difference between the WTO and the WCO?

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is a regulator.  It was set up in 1995 to establish a permanent organisation for implementing international trade agreements and setting up a dispute settlement body.  Its origins go back to 1948 when the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade (GATT) first started.  It became the WTO on 1st January 1995 and currently has 159 member countries (March 2013). It deals with the regulation of international trade by providing a framework for negotiating and formalising trade agreements.  The dispute resolution process is aimed at enforcing participants' adherence to WTO agreements, which are signed by representatives of member governments and ratified by their parliaments.  See
The World Customs Organisation (WCO) is an administrator.  It is the only international body dedicated exclusively to international customs and border control matters. It was founded way back in 1952 (1st meeting January 1953) as a Study Group of the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade (GATT).  It was originally called the Customs Cooperation Council (CCC) and became the WCO in 1994.  It currently has 179 member countries (plus the EU as a group) and its primary objective is to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness with regard to customs facilitation and control of its members.  Its instruments and best practice guides are recognised as the basis for sound customs administration throughout the world.  They maintain the international Harmonised System for commodity classification (tariff numbers) and also administer the technical aspects of WTO Agreements such as the ones covering Customs Valuation and Rules of Origin. See

Friday, 3 May 2013


I was approached in January by a not-for-profit organisation in Finland to deliver international trade training services in April to a group of companies from the creative industries sector, most of them young or start-up companies, but also one or two more established businesses. My initial discussions with Christer Sjoholm centred on a two day project, with a presentation on general aspects of international trading on the first morning, followed by a series of one-to-one sessions with interested companies for the remainder of my visit.

Anticipating that we would have anything between six and ten one-to-one meetings, we allowed one hour for each followed by a 15 minute note-taking and comfort break. Each company was required to provide a single page summary of what they wanted to achieve out of the session, and the deadline for those summaries was one week before my visit. As the deadline approached it became clear that we would fill most of the remaining day and a half following the presentation, and by the time the deadline passed, thirteen companies had signed up!

Never afraid of a challenge, I embarked upon what I thought would be a punishing schedule, but the truth is that I was energised by the enthusiasm of each of the companies, their fantastic creations and ideas, their plans, and in some cases their complete lack of a plan! Time just flew by, and I am sure I could have squeezed in a few more one-to-ones had there been more companies to see.  I have worked before with companies from the creative sector, and quickly learned that their passion is in what they create, not in getting their products to market, understanding international business, or even in basic business organisation. 

There was a diverse group of companies: illustrators, graphic designers, textile designers and manufacturers, photographers, writers, a wholesaler, a soft toy manufacturer, an established Finnish fashion brand, and a specialist manufacturer of electric bass guitars. All of them knew their products intimately, and all had great stories to tell about how their product or service was conceived. Like so many smaller businesses, they felt that they were not receiving the professional help they needed to drive their companies forward into international markets.

The real issue is that they were actually more interested in creating products and ideas rather than in developing business. In most cases, they wanted someone else to take the pain and hassle of getting their product to market. In one case, it was suggested directly to me that I would become the Sales Agent for a range of products, to which I suggested directly ‘No’, but it was a good try and it highlighted exactly the deficiency of many similar companies, in Finland, in the UK, worldwide. It’s one thing to create, it’s quite another to sell.

Jakobstad is located in an area of western Finland where for historic and general conquest reasons 90% of the population is Swedish, and the vast majority of them have a very good command of English. There is a strong awareness of international markets and a tradition in the area of selling products overseas. Most of these younger companies are just putting their foot on the first rung of the ladder, and they need the kind of handholding that almost all companies need in their formative years.

I very was surprised that social media has not been embraced in Finland as it has been back here in the UK, especially given the profile of the companies who I was talking to. In isolation individual social media sites are of little worth, but collectively they can act as different shop windows for your products and services. You can use each social media to present your products in a different way, to a different audience, and at a different time. It is all about getting your marketing mix right and about you controlling your online presence rather than it controlling you!

But most of all, why would you not want to use social media to maximum effect when it is largely free? And why would you not want to use social media when you can get your message across several times a day, while spending only a few minutes doing it. Social media is an online trend, and we have seen many of these trend come and go in the short time that the world has had the Internet, so it is important to companies large and small to work with the trends of the day and to anticipate those that are just around the corner. And that was part of my message to the companies in Jakobstad.

I also helped to put them directly in contact with specialists offering a mix of professional international services, from intellectual property rights, currency exchange, customs & excise, to financial and logistics services, and in most cases I was able to suggest key target companies in the UK for their products, and provide guidance in how best to approach the market. So now we await the arrival of some of those companies in London during Design Week in September, to see how they have progressed and what they have learned. And in the meanwhile I will enjoy communication with every one of them, and to do my bit in helping them to realise their ambitions.