Richard Brown has just spent the morning at the Department of Trade and Industry in London, discussing the cultural barriers facing British exporters. He knows a thing or two about cultural barriers. In 1982 he changed his name by deed poll from Shahid Iqbal to Richard Brown in an attempt to overcome what he saw as a deep-seated racism among his potential British customers.
Since then, his business career has taken a rollercoaster ride that included promotion to general manager at the age of 23, but redundancy and receivership in later years.
Now, aged 37, and as head of Aston Fittings – his own hydraulic components manufacturing company which he founded three years ago – he has been invited to join the Government’s Export Forum.
The forum’s task is to come up with ideas for a complete overhaul of the way in which the Government helps small business to target and sell into new export markets. Its brief is broad: to examine the whole range of provisions – from language skills and foreign culture training, through to IT and databases, grants and finance, and the labyrinth of organisations designed to help.
The forum has a sense on urgency and energy absent from most Government committees, and will meet every week until mid-October to ensure that it covers all the ground.
Brown is the only member from a small manufacturing firm, but 50% of Aston’s £1m turnover comes from exports, mainly to the Middle East and Ireland.
He was invited on to the group by the DTI – thanks to his unstinting criticism of the support offered to small companies trying to export.
‘I’ve been exporting for the last 17 years, and I’ve had a lot of problems getting information and help from the services which are supposed to be available,’ he says. ‘I have always been vociferous in my criticism of the level of support for small companies which are looking to export. And I’ve basically been complaining to everyone who would listen.’
Brown speaks on behalf of the thousands of companies with similar problems when they try to export. Many of his colleagues on the forum are from bigger companies and a range of industrial sectors, along with representatives from Chambers of Commerce, Business Links, the Confederation of British Industry and the British Council.
In the chair is Tom Harris, director general of export promotion at the DTI, alternating with Sir Andrew Burns, deputy under secretary at the Foreign Office.
‘A lot of these people can see the picture from on high, but don’t have the knowledge of actually trying to use some of the services on offer,’ says Brown. ‘On the first day of the forum, they showed us a chart with 25 to 30 bodies which exist apparently to help companies export. When I asked who is actually in charge of marketing and promoting all these services, it was clear the answer was “nobody”.’
Brown’s next meeting (21 August) will go some way to addressing this in detail, when the small business advice bodies come under scrutiny.
‘The interface between the British Chambers of Commerce, the DTI, Business Links and the Training and Enterprise Councils isn’t working,’ says Brown.
Small companies can be passed from pillar to post as they seek information. Business Links, established by Michael Heseltine during the last Government, is the delivery arm of the small business advice service offered by the Tecs. But some Tecs are merging with local Chambers of Commerce, leading to duplication of business advice and databases.
A further problem is that many small firms balk at paying even the minimum subscription (£195 in Birmingham) asked by local chambers.
Chambers of Commerce has published a green paper, The Future Chamber, through its lead organisation, British Chambers of Commerce. The document envisages a single point of enquiry for information, which does away with the duplicate roles of the current regional Chambers and the Tecs and Business Links. Whatever single body evolves will have to work closely with the new regional development agencies planned for 1999.
‘Any reorganisation is going to be painful,’ says Brown. ‘Each existing group will defend its own corner, and any streamlining will be unpopular with whichever has its role reduced. But the savings made can be re-injected to provide more effective help to more businesses.’
The muddle of information providers is not the only headache facing businessmen like Brown.
On his many trips abroad, he is often frustrated at the lack of time devoted to small companies by the commercial desks of the embassies.
‘They don’t have the resources either. The entire budget to support British exports is about £215m, equivalent to less than one day’s running costs of the NHS. Yet 25% of our national income comes from export earnings,’ he says.
According to Brown, more cash should be available. ‘The current £1,000 export voucher scheme will not cover a plane ticket to Dubai. To get an export voucher, you have to plan the itinerary from a UK travel agent, which is less flexible for anyone who intends to follow leads established once they arrive overseas.’
Not that Brown will get a chance over the next eight weeks to visit clients he had been targeting in the Middle East, because he does not want to miss any of the forum meetings. ‘It takes a lot of my time, but in the end, it’s too important to miss.’