New Silk Road: Chinese women waving flags on April 10, when the first UK-to-China export train departed laden with British goods © Peter Nicholls/Reuters
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China is set to overtake Germany and France within five years as an important market for many of Britain’s most successful exporters, putting it second only to the US. Diversification into other, emerging economies, however, looks likely to be slow as the UK splits from the EU.

These findings emerge from a survey by University of Strathclyde Business School of recent winners of the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise, the UK’s highest official accolades for business success. Carried out just before the vote to leave the EU on June 23 last year, it conveys mixed prospects for Theresa May, the prime minister, who hopes the UK will assert itself as a “great, global trading nation” after Brexit takes place in 2019.

While Britain’s future relationship with the EU will not become clear for months, at least, the government will look to successful companies such as Queen’s Award winners to lead the way in raising the country’s efforts in trade and innovation. In that, they will be setting an example to the nine out of 10 UK businesses that currently do not export.

The 2017 list, published to mark the Queen’s birthday on April 21, provides ample evidence of the winners’ ability to innovate and sell goods and services overseas. These companies are unlikely to be among those criticised last September by Liam Fox, international trade secretary, as “too fat and too lazy” to seek out new markets.

This year there are 176 awards: 102 for international trade, 57 for innovation, 11 for sustainable development and six for promoting opportunity through social mobility. They are spread across sectors including drug discovery, textile manufacturing, software development and digital music distribution.

The awards showcase the diversity of UK business. Winners in the international trade — that is, exports — category range from the likes of Greenbank Technology, maker of industrial ovens, dryers and washing systems since 1954, to Jellycat, which makes quirky soft toys.

Innovation award winners range from Zettlex, which makes sensors for measuring position or speed in tough environments, to SwimTrek, which pioneered adventure swimming holidays.

The first Queen’s Awards winners were announced in 1966, seven years before Britain entered the European Economic Community. They have rewarded excellence through economic ups and downs. Brexit, though, presents a new challenge.

The Strathclyde study of more than 200 winners from the past five years was conducted by Keith Pyper and Prof Michael Baker with funding from the Marketing Trust, in partnership with the Queen’s Awards office.

“As things stand the markets they are targeting and strategies they are pursuing have certainly been successful,” says Mr Pyper. “The point is, are they going to continue to be successful as things change?” A rethink could be needed if Brexit results in tariffs and barriers to trade with EU countries.

Some 41 per cent of award winners said the US was their most important market, followed by Germany with just over 7 per cent and France slightly below. Asked to predict which market would be most important in five years’ time, 45 per cent said the US, while those citing China doubled to 12 per cent, followed by Germany, United Arab Emirates and Australia. France dropped to 3 per cent. However, the numbers citing other emerging markets remained very small. Fewer than 2 per cent expected India to be their most important market, and fewer than 1 per cent cited Brazil.


Mr Pyper says: “It seems to me there hasn’t been a focus for successful exporters to target the fastest-growing markets, although there is much data to suggest that these are going to be lucrative.”

This year’s awards contain many examples of export ambition, such as Avonmouth-based Nisbets. Started by Andrew Nisbet from the boot of his car in 1983, it is one of world’s biggest catering equipment suppliers, with £250m turnover and sales to more than 100 countries. Nisbets, sometimes called “the Amazon of the cookery business” (or alternatively “Bristol’s best-kept secret”), has succeeded by providing a one-stop shop for whatever equipment customers are seeking.

Another trade category winner is Pektron, based in Derby. Founded by chairman George Morgan in 1964, it started off developing electronic devices for the brewing industry and is one of the world’s largest privately owned electronics companies, serving clients such as carmaker Ford and Case New Holland, the agricultural equipment maker.

Tristar Worldwide, founded in 1978, pioneered door-to-door luxury chauffeur services for airline companies such as Virgin Atlantic. Now it operates chauffeur-driven private car hire in 80 countries and was acquired last year by Addison Lee.

Reincubate, another trade winner, developed technology to recover content from app platforms such Apple’s iOS and iCloud systems after chief executive Aidan Fitzpatrick became fed up with losing his own data after updates. The company licenses software to law enforcement and child protection agencies and corporate clients.

Award winners are starting to grapple with what Brexit might mean for their business models. Horus Music, with offices in Leicester and Mumbai, distributes music to digital stores and platforms on behalf of independent artists and labels. Nick Dunn, its owner, had argued that remaining in the EU was “the only sensible way forwards for both business and protecting our human rights”. However, he assures clients that he has been formulating a plan to ensure they retain access to all markets.

Dave Maisey, co-founder and chief executive of Warrington-based ICC Solutions, appears more enthusiastic about opportunities offered by Brexit. “I really do believe that there are exciting times ahead and that we should have more flexibility as a nation to implement new trading agreements quicker,” he said recently. His software company, which specialises in providing testing tools for chip and pin systems, wins an innovation award for its activities in the US — its fourth Queen’s Award.

This year’s list includes five double winners, such as MastaPlasta, which wins in both the international trade and innovation categories. Created by two designers, Donna Clarke and Stephan Pavlou, it devised the first self-adhesive leather repair patch for sofas, car seats, bags and jackets.

The innovation category includes technology companies such as Conversion Rate Experts, which codified the methodology that Google, Facebook and Apple now use to improve their websites. Founded in 2006 by internet marketing expert Ben Jesson and former rocket scientist Karl Blanks, it optimises websites to attract people and convert them into customers.

Macclesfield-based Quint Group, a consumer finance technology company co-founded in 2009 by chief executive Greg Cox, wins an innovation award for its Monevo platform, which connects online lenders, consumers and brokers.

Winners in sustainable development include Bettys and Taylors, the Yorkshire family business that combines cafés with selling tea and coffee. Bettys started in 1919 when Frederick Belmont, a Swiss confectioner, married a local woman and opened his first Bettys Café Tea Rooms in Harrogate. In 1962 the family acquired Taylors, which was founded in 1886.

In its dealings with suppliers, whether local farmers or tea and coffee growers overseas, the business aims to pay fair prices, develop long-term relationships and invest in projects to improve the lives of people it trades with.

Winners can use the Queen’s Awards emblem in advertising, marketing and on packaging for five years.

Companies say the awards help them to stand out in a competitive global market — something they will need more than ever as Brexit takes effect.

A list of this year’s winners and a guide to applying for a Queen’s Award are available at www.gov.uk/queens-awards-for-enterprise

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.