Made in Lancashire, sold to the world

By Ged Henderson

28 Sep 2023

William Blythe

The United States, Germany and Netherlands are Lancashire’s top three export markets according to data from the Department for International Trade. Here companies trading with all three nations share their experiences and advice on how to do business there.

A cut above the rest

REM in Nelson can trace its history of manufacturing salon, spa and barber furniture back to 1918.

And that heritage plays an important part in the company’s sales pitch as it exports its products around the world.

REM, which has an 85-strong workforce at its Lancashire home and an annual turnover of £6.5m, exports to some 50 countries.

It is strong in Europe, with the Netherlands a key market. Other export territories include the Middle East and the business has set its sights on further development in Scandinavia as well as the potentially lucrative cruise ship market.

Karen Byrne, a member of its export sales team, explains that the business operates through a network of distributors, which are key to its overseas performance.

She says: “We have good network of distributors, working closely with them to increase sales. Your network is only as good as the relationship you have with the distributor. You also have to remain pro-active.”

She adds: “Our heritage helps. We always highlight the fact we are a UK manufacturer and what we are delivering is British made.”

When it comes to the Netherlands, Karen says: “It is an important market for us.” The business has a showroom for its products near Rotterdam and is actively working to further increase its sales there.

She adds: “When it comes to exporting, preparation is everything. Take a good, close look at the markets you want to enter.”

The product is king

Andrew Turner, managing director of Accrington based Langtec, puts it simply. “Exporting is in our DNA,” he says. His company manufactures tubes from composite materials and exports 85 per cent of what it makes.

The business is more than 100 years old and began life buying ceramic tiles from Marseille and selling them all over what was the British Empire. Today it has a staff of 40 based in east Lancashire.

Andrew says: “Our biggest area for sales is North America – the USA, Canada and Mexico. We also sell right across Europe, including Germany and the Netherlands and as far away as New Zealand.

“We have a product our customers need. It is not a luxury item, it is an essential for them and if the market is there so are we.”

In North America the company has a key relationship with an agent that stretches back decades and has been instrumental in its growth there. When it comes to the EU he says: “To my knowledge we haven’t lost any sales there because of Brexit. We were prepared for it.

“It is a slight irritation on the part of our customers, they have to do a little bit more paperwork, but it’s not a barrier to trade.

“The product is still king. It is having the right product with the right quality and the right price. If we can deliver it as quickly as our competitors in Europe they will buy from us and that is exactly what we look to do.”

He adds: “You have to have something that people want, that is the main thing. And you have got to weigh up the cost of exporting. The objective of the exercise is to make some money out of it.”

Finding the perfect formula

William Blythe’s proud boast is that it is one of the oldest chemical companies in the UK.

Founded in 1845 to support Lancashire’s textile industry, today the business has evolved into specialised inorganic chemicals and advanced materials and it has an 85-strong workforce.

Sales director Kevin Hudson says exporting is vital to the company, adding 80 per cent of its business, more than £40m, comes from overseas.

Kevin says: “We are truly an international business, and our biggest market is the EU which accounts for over 40 per cent of our revenue.

“Germany is one of its key markets. He says it is a good market for UK companies because it is stable and business orientated with clear and effective communication.

He adds: “It is a good starting point for businesses. There are no problems with payments.”

Kevin says William Blythe is looking at new markets all the time “as we try to grow, both with our existing products and new ones coming in.”

The company is doing well in Asia and Australasia, and has long-standing clients in Japan and it sees North America as a key area for growth.

A cab ride to success

Slingco’s business journey in the USA began with a chance conversation during a ride in a yellow cab.

The Rawtenstall business, an award-winning supplier of high-quality cable grip and specialist pulling tools, had been struggling to get a foothold on the other side of the Atlantic.

Chief executive Nick Dykins explains: “It was the early 2000s and it wasn’t easy, a lot of people were interested in the product we had, but asked where we held stock and when we said the UK they walked away.”

Things changed during that cab ride from the airport to a trade show in Louisville, Kentucky, and a conversation with Brian, the man behind the wheel.

It led to the driver being placed on a retainer to take charge of the company’s US orders. His role was to remove the sold product from a small storage facility, and drop it off at a UPS site for delivery. Nick says: “It seemed like a sensible thing to do.”

From those very modest beginnings Slingco’s presence in North America has grown into an impressive operation. Based in Georgia it employs 30 people and is set to record sales of more than $35m this year. Nick’s brother Matt is in charge of the US operation.

There have been other challenges to get to this stage. Slingco had to adjust the design of products so they looked more familiar to the US customer. And its team had to get used to the different priorities of those customers. Nick says: “In the UK usually the first question is, how much is it? Then you’re asked if it is in stock and after that you’re questioned on quality.

“In the US the first question is, when can I have it? Is it in stock? Then they ask about quality and, after that, the price.”

Nick adds: “You have to tune into the different buyer values. In Germany the usual first question is about quality. Each country is different.”

He says that businesses looking to export have also to be prepared for different ways of doing business. Slingco has certainly had lots of experience in that. Nick explains that 90 per cent of its work goes overseas, with most heading to the USA. The company is strong in Canada, Mexico, the EU and the Middle East.

Looking ahead Slingco is aiming to continue to build in a range of markets, including the EU. Germany is its biggest European territory.

A double winner of a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in international trade, it serves customers in more than 60 countries, employing 100 people at its Lancashire headquarters and 70 at a manufacturing facility in India.

Enjoyed this? Read more from Ged Henderson

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