A song for Europe

The mood music may suggest that post-Brexit barriers are making the EU a no-go area for many UK businesses, but Paul Harrison sings a different tune. “There’s money to be made in Europe”, he declares. “So don’t be afraid to explore it.”

Paul is director of Melba Swintex. Based in Ramsbottom it is a global leader in the manufacturer of temporary traffic management products, as well as barriers used in event management and street furniture.

He says: “Our exports have gone up since Brexit and continue to do so. We are currently doing about £4.5m in exports a year and about 80 per cent of that is into Europe.”

There is little doubt that the UK’s exit from the EU caused Lancashire exporters many headaches, not least the increase in red tape. Paul says: “There were extra hoops to go through, but once you know what you’re doing it becomes a day-to-day thing.”

Dave Lenehan, managing director of Blackburn-based Northern Industrial, which specialises in refurbished automation spare parts, and exports across the world, says there are still problems sending items to the EU, but he adds: “Those things will get easier as people become more aware.

“It’s not been that long since Brexit happened really, and we’ve also had the pandemic. Over time we’ll all get used to it.”

In the meantime, the company has opened an operation in Germany to get around some of the problems. Dave says: “Fifty per cent of our business is export and of that, 50 per cent is in the EU.

Once you are VAT registered in the EU and you jump through a few smaller hoops it’s not complicated

“There were some unique challenges with the changes brought about by Brexit, with suppliers not wanting to deal with us, customers choosing to buy from other European countries.

“We’ve opened Germany as a hub to get around the issues. A lot of our products need to be in the country the same day or the next day.”

A recent report in the Financial Times also revealed an influx of British-based companies to the Netherlands, where they have built or rented distribution space.

Martyn Bysh, chief executive of Huboo, a logistics provider to online retailers, shared with the newspaper his belief that more midsized UK companies are ready to resume exporting to Europe.

He added: “Once you are VAT registered in the EU and you jump through a few smaller hoops it’s not complicated.”

Graham James, director of Flexcrete Technologies, a Leyland-based manufacturer of construction chemicals has a somewhat different take. He declares: “Brexit has been absolutely horrible for us.”

Businesses in his sector are currently caught in a complex situation over common standards and factory production control marks. The problem is caused by what he describes as “a failure” in the UK-EU trade agreement to adopt mutual recognition for these standards.

He says: “The net effect has meant we are spending a very considerable amount of money having to re-test products to put them back on the market, around £150,000 of unbudgeted expenditure.

“All the test work and all the background work that has to go into this also dilutes our capacity, because we are using our technical resources and people to get us through these challenging times. That prevents us doing essential R&D to drive the business forward.

“Opportunities are being missed as a consequence. At the same time, with Brexit, we’ve lost business with customers in continental Europe.”

However, despite the problems facing his business, Paul says European territories like Germany do still offer benefits to companies new to exporting.

He explains: “One of the key things they need to keep in mind is getting paid. If you’re starting out, go where your money is going to be fairly secure, and one of the key places for that is Germany.”

Melba Swintex has a 220-strong workforce and won a Queen’s Award for its overseas trade success two years ago.

Paul Harrison, who has just returned from a major traffic technology exhibition in Amsterdam, says it has almost trebled its international sales since 2105.

He says: “We’ve been exporting for 30 to 40 years. We were dealing mainly with western Europe but now we are seeing a lot of business in Poland and other eastern European countries.

“Initially we were dealing with people on an exclusive supply basis where people had the rights to sell our products in that country.

“We’ve now moved away from that model, so that we now supply to a large number of companies in each country. It gives us more flexibility and more options. That’s not something you can do overnight.”

He speaks of the importance of companies attending trade shows, and also making sure their websites are translated into European languages.

He says: “We are constantly looking for new areas to do business and our products are tailormade for the European markets.

“We don’t make products for the British market and then attempt to export them.

“We have the ability to make products specifically for European markets where there are different requirements, either because of the climate – Norway and Sweden require different traffic management products - or for places like Germany, where their specifications are higher than in other countries.”