Close ties between UK and US can help East of England exporters

Author Lord (Michael) Dobbs, centre, at the Building Success in the US event with co-hosts David Sma

Author Lord (Michael) Dobbs, centre, at the Building Success in the US event with co-hosts David Smallman, left, and Andrew Garner. - Credit: Archant

The wisdom, or otherwise, behind wearing a tie was among the aspects of business culture addressed at a UK Trade & Investment event staged to help firms in the East of England achieve sales in the United States.

Building Success in the US, held at the Rowley Mile racecourse in Newmarket, included a key note address from Lord (Michael) Dobbs, a former deputy chairman of both advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi and the Conservative Party but probably better known as author of the political novel House of Cards.

Lord Dobbs, who said House of Cards could be described as “my export to the United States”, following its recent remake by Kevin Spacey, said UK firms seeking to do business in the US need to cast aside “British modesty”.

British firms started with an advantage because the nations’ historical and cultural ties meant “being British has a distinct cutting edge in the United States”, although he also stressed the diverse nature of the US.

Lord Dobbs also warned that, while “British accents do help to open doors”, it was important for UK firms to spend time in the States meeting customers and potential customers, rather than attempt to rely on “hired hands”, and for them to set aside their natural reserve, as “British modesty is meaningless in the United States.”

Lord Dobbs also acknowledged that there could be frustrations in doing business in the US such as legal issues (“you will need to get a lawyer”) and time differences (“buy an alarm clock”) but the greater appetite for risk in the US also meant that it was often possible to do deals more quickly than in the UK.

“Being British is an advantage so brag about it and take advantage of it,” he said. “So get that lawyer, get that alarm clock, get that frontier spirit, and get on a plane.”

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The conference heard from leaders from three businesses based in the East of England which have achieved export success in the US.

Simon Payne, chief executive of XJTAG, part of the Cambridge Technology Group, agreed would-be exporters to the US needed to lose their British modesty and also suggested that they should “lose their tie”, in keeping with US corporate culture. However, Andrew Garner, who co-hosted the conference with David Smallman, later countered that the suit and tie was perhaps worth keeping precisely because it helped to set the British apart as different.

Mr Payne said his firm initially made slow progress in the US, and took some time to find the right distributor, but things improved when it stepped up its level of support. It then opened a US office, although not without a delay while it obtained a work visa.

Trade shows were a greater source of leads in the US but it was important to get the right people to front a firm’s presence, people able to engage and to communicate, and to ensure displays were compact and light enough not to require hired help to set up and remove, he said.

US lawyers are registered to a particular state and it is easy to end up with an additional bill if they are instructed to carry out work elsewhere, he warned.

His tip for making the best of the time difference between the UK and the US was to sign up for a “frequent flyer” scheme in order to get an upgrade to when possible, which would help the traveller to arrive feeling fresher while keeping costs down.

Peter Church, managing director of FB Chain, an industrial chain supplier in Letchworth Garden City, also stressed the importance of face-to-face contact if the potential advantages of being British were to be realised.

“We sound British but not if we use email,” he said. “If you are going to rely on email you might as well be American. You need to speak to them, and to speak to as many people as you can. Networking is huge at trade events.”

Mr Church said the time difference between the UK and US could be turned to advantage as, with the right shipping arrangements, orders could be turned around “overnight” from an American perspective so that they arrived the following day.

Matthew Segall, chief executive of Cambridge-based Optibrium, which provides molecular design software for the pharmaceuticals sector, said attending conferences and exhibitions had worked well for the company in the US where it generates around half its revenues, together with research publications, PR articles and web/email marketing.

Sales, marketing and customer support were administered in the UK, said Mr Segall - who was born in the US but has been a UK resident for 40 years – but he still spent a lot of time in the States, meeting customers and potential customers.

He stressed that there was no single “US market”, with business different from state to state, but he agreed that, in general, the willingness of US firms to take risks meant that business could often be secured relatively quickly.

Jeffries Briginshaw, chief executive of British American Business, gave an update on the proposed Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) which is the subject of ongoing talks between the European Union and the US.

He said the proposals would, in principle, make trade agreements clearer, simpler and more effective. Duties and tariffs should come down and access to public procurement should improve but, contrary to some claims, it was not a “race to the bottom” in terms of food standards and the future of the UK’s NHS was not at risk.

However, he said that, with the talks now having reached a technical stage, the rate of progress was likely to become slower.

Predictions concerning the timescale ranged from a politicians’ “wish list” of later this year to the suggestion of cynics that TTIP will never happen.

Mr Briginshaw said he believed the talks were likely to deliver but that the window represented by the current administration at the White House could be missed, so that a conclusion could well be “two years down the line”.

Guests were welcomed to the conference by Alan Pain, the new regional director for UKTI in the East of England.

The event included an address on developing a strategy for the US market by Christian Majgaard, a former director of global branding and business development for Lego, together with break-out sessions on different aspects of exporting and facilitated round-table discussions on issues specific to the US.

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