Is there still a strong US/UK relationship? Do Americans like buying UK products?
My view is that Americans like dealing with Brits. They see us as honest, straightforward, trustworthy, and often as creative as well. They like dealing with the UK, and that will get you in the door. It won’t keep you in the door. What keeps you in the door is having the right product, the right sales pitch, understanding how to deliver it in America, particularly in New York. In a typical sales meeting in the UK, we’ll discuss the weather for at least five minutes, or last night’s football match, before we get down to the business of the day. In New York that’s unlikely to happen. The chances are that in the first two or three minutes they’ll expect you to be telling them about your KPIs and how you are going to earn them money. If you aren’t ready for that, then you’ll be out of the door pretty quickly. Even if you intended to cover it and you were doing it in the wrong order, they’ll get bored quickly. So understanding that cultural difference, how you sell to them, is an important differentiator coming here.
The small talk may come a bit later in the meeting when they’ve figured out that there is an exchange of value that they can make with you, then they’ll invest some time getting to know you.
I always hear people say that New Yorkers are not friendly. I don’t buy that. I think New Yorkers are really friendly, they’re just time-poor. If you ask them for help, they will almost always suggest something to you before moving on but New Yorkers are generally very open.
I first lived here in the early 1990s and I had people say to me, “New York is a pretty scary place. You’re going to die.” New York was probably a slightly more challenging city 25 years ago than it is today, but people on the whole are very friendly and very willing to help. It’s a very international city.
Which sectors can British exporters or British companies really exploit in the US?
That’s always a tough question. To me, it’s a little bit less about the sectors and a little bit more about the differentiation you bring to your product. If you add to this the capability to build partnerships and support the product with marketing, then you can make a significant amount of money.
We see quite a lot of food and drink companies coming here, as well as giftware and jewellery businesses. The UK is quite design-strong; there is some really cool stuff that Brits do, and we have a very quirky take on things. Advertising for us is a really strong point. US adverts are not as good as UK adverts – ours are funnier and they resonate more. Again, it is a sense of British creativity coming through.
Do you have a network of UK exporters to the US that new exporters can tap into?
Taking New York as an example, whenever we have groups coming over on trade missions, we will almost always have a couple of Q&A sessions where we will bring in UK companies that are based here, who will talk about their experiences. I can tell people all kinds of things, but they are far more likely to listen to a guy who did it last week.
We’re starting to build a group called Great British Business Club, which has about 120 members now, where the UK companies over here can network amongst themselves. The purpose is to learn from each other and share advice. We have a steering group, which is made up of four or five companies from that group, so it’s not us setting the agenda.
In a time of public sector cuts, will the funding for the UKTI’s work be maintained?
The whole government has challenges on funding, and like other departments we have to reduce spending over the next four to five years. But they are relatively modest, and within that we were given a big chunk of money, which we need to use carefully. We have big targets to meet: gaining a trillion pounds in exports and 100,000 new exporters by 2020. One way is to focus on digital as it can help companies to be better prepared for when they come here. If you can sit at your desk and download some information, maybe some video blogs, before you go to the States, then the investment of time and money you make will be valuable to you.
The United States is the size of a continent. How do you advise tackling a market that is so vast?
When I’m talking to companies, I’ll often put a slide up showing the size of each US state as an economy, renaming the state with a world country that is the same size. So you look at that picture and it makes you stop and think for a second and realise: I wouldn’t try and tackle 50 countries in one go. I wouldn’t do it! So why do I think I can do that in America? UK companies will often go to one place such as New York, San Francisco, Chicago or Atlanta, and they will start to grow from there.
It’s all about understanding the opportunities and the challenges. Some companies arrive thinking they’re going to make a big sale, but then find it’s tough, so they go away and they don’t come back.
There are lots of little steps along the way that can get you in the right place, and part of our role at UKTI is to help companies with each of those little steps, and gradually those small steps become a journey. If you try to do the whole journey in one go, people can get quite scared.
What impact would the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (a trade agreement between the European Union and the United States) have?
There are several examples of SMEs coming up against some unusual spikes in tariffs, such as a UK company who were selling ballet leotards to the New York Ballet, and the duty was something like 30%. Then there are the non-duty barriers, like having to change your labelling where you have got to invest time in understanding the US labelling requirements. TTIP is about getting rid of as many of those barriers as we possibly can. It would be very helpful for SMEs to take away barriers to trade.
I believe there is an appetite on both sides of the Atlantic to make TTIP happen.
Do you get frustrated about the vast number of companies in the UK that don’t have the ambition to actually take their fantastic products further afield and really take that chance?
I’m not sure I’d say frustration, but I think it’s about people missing out on opportunities. It is true that companies that export tend to be more productive, more innovative and more creative; if you’re travelling the world selling stuff, you’re seeing way more ideas. I think the challenge for many people is that it can feel a bit scary. My challenge is always: is the bigger risk to do nothing? Because if you sit here and do nothing, maybe some guy from America
or Germany or Japan will come and nick it and take your market in the UK. So grow what you’re doing, learn more things, be better at what you do, and then when that guy comes, don’t just see him off, but go back to his country and take his market over there. That’s what I’d like UK companies to be doing.