The 2017 winner and runner-up of the GTR BExA Young Exporter of the Year Award are both focused on making a positive impact in the communities that they do business in. GTR speaks to them about the government’s support for UK exports, their advice for other young exporters, and the importance of creating a positive impact through the work they do.
Alastair White, deputy chairman of Biwater International, was named the winner of the Young Exporter of the Year Award 2017, a prize jointly granted by GTR and the British Exporters Association (BExA). The runner-up position was awarded to Jack Holmes, vice-president of business development at Winch Energy.
Competition was tight amongst the 2017 finalists, which also included: Ashlie Hubbard, customer service executive at Ramsden International; Simon Lyons, director at Version 22 Design; Christian McBride, CEO of Genuine Solutions, and Stephen Mellor, key accounts lead at HiETA Technologies.
In the end, it was White’s pivotal role in the 2016 landmark loan for the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) in Iraq, a deal aimed at easing the pressures on existing water systems and reducing the region’s reliance on groundwater reserves, which secured his win. UK water engineering company Biwater is carrying out the US$1.2bn-worth of water and wastewater treatment infrastructure projects in the cities of Erbil and Sulaimani.
“Alastair’s belief in this project, and commitment to addressing global water infrastructure needs, enabled this ground-breaking agreement to reach financial close – one of many examples of what this talented 33-year-old water professional can achieve,” reads White’s Young Exporter nomination form. The submission also makes note of his “deep understanding of the water industry” and the fact that he has secured other major projects for the company in new and existing markets.
Meanwhile, runner-up Holmes impressed the judges with his role running Winch Energy’s business development team. The renewable energy developer provides off-grid solutions for rural populations in Africa.
“He cares about how transactions are concluded and in ensuring that each transaction is sustainable for the long term for all of the different stakeholders,” reads his nomination form.
GTR: What could the UK government do to enable more companies to grow their exports?
White: Firstly, I would ask that parliament authorises an increase in UK Export Finance’s (UKEF) market cover ten-fold. I feel that in order for British companies to stand a chance to compete on the international stage, we must be able to bring financing solutions to our international clients, which will level the playing field against our foreign competitors who offer stunningly low prices to win contracts. British companies are rarely able to compete on price alone.
Large civil infrastructure projects, like those Biwater delivers, or indeed any company wishing to build a set of airports, nuclear reactors, motorways, dams, etc – which will make a real difference to UK export growth and subsequent orders to UK suppliers – can easily consume UKEF’s entire cover for a market in a single contract.
As an example, whilst our Chinese and Korean counterparts regularly offer US$10bn facilities to their international clients in one go to, say, build a port, UKEF often struggles to support such a project for British contractors on its own, due to restrictions within its mandate from the government.
That said, UKEF has been superb recently in supporting Biwater’s exporting efforts within its current boundaries, and without the support of its transaction and executive teams, we would not have been able to achieve our recent successes. Hats off to them.
And secondly, I would strongly suggest that any trade director, either in the UK or in the foreign and commonwealth office (FCO) teams abroad, who are employed by the department for international trade have at least two years’ experience working in the private sector in a trade capacity. This experience can be invaluable when balancing UK trade policy with the realities facing private enterprises.
Holmes: The one thing that the UK government could do would be to re-consider linking aid with trade. Many countries in Africa are under IMF/World Bank programmes and have very small, or in some cases zero, non-concessional borrowing limits and can therefore only take on external debt if the terms are deemed ‘concessional’. In essence, a concessional loan is one with an 18-plus-year tenor, ideally with an interest rate less than 1%, and is reserved for projects that provide a net positive economic impact.
Utilising UKEF’s direct lending facility, Winch can today reach a level of concessionality of approximately 25%, however, to be deemed concessional, a grant is required to increase the concessionality level above the 35% threshold, a hurdle set by the World Bank. If the UK’s department for international development (DFID) were to provide the grant funding required and combine it with UKEF’s direct lending facility, Winch would be able to provide a finance solution that many African countries require to fund social infrastructure projects and to plug their infrastructure gap. To give you a benchmark, 50% of all concessional lending in Sub-Saharan Africa comes from China – which gives you an idea of why they have been so successful on the continent.
GTR: What would be your advice to other young UK exporters looking to crack tough export markets?
White: Be bold, be prepared, know your business, and be relentless in your pursuit of achieving your objectives.
But importantly, where possible, try and swing the odds of obtaining a contract in your favour by balancing such things with what is the most important: understanding your client’s needs and the market in which you will be operating, before jumping in with both feet, risking huge sunk costs.
The best source of information will be from your British or international colleagues, who most likely will have tried recently to win contracts in those markets, and can guide you away from potential pitfalls or no-go areas. The FCO and DIT teams in UK embassies around the world can often guide you towards networking events where you can liaise with local law firms, banks or contractors who have been there and done it in that country for years, and who will gladly offer their advice, sometimes for a fee – but, rest assured, this will be money well spent.
If you take the plunge and travel to meet the client, I suggest you always translate your materials into the local language and try to ensure your presentation is under 15 slides, or 20 minutes in length, using easy-to-understand terminology, otherwise you will have lost the interest of the client in minutes. You are not presenting in the City of London, but often in unfamiliar territory, so adapting to the environment is key.
Importantly, exporting is hard. Much harder in my experience than selling goods and services in the UK. So you have to be willing to stick the course, often spending many weeks and months at a time away from home to see a contract go through.
Holmes: When entering a new market, you need to be very disciplined and follow a clear process, otherwise you can find yourself off course very quickly. I divide it into four clear steps:
Step 1: Pre-development. You need to understand your target market: who are your competitors, what is your price point, does your product offer something different in the market? I recommend speaking to UK government representatives in-country. These can be the high commission and/or embassy and will give you an honest third-party view of the market, including opening doors to relevant stakeholders.
Step 2: Local partner. Markets in Africa are notoriously bureaucratic and corruption is prevalent; this is something you need to be conscious of. Partnering with a bankable local partner with a proven track record will allow you to navigate these issues. Moreover, they will provide key experience on important factors such as duty structures, logistics and engaging with key stakeholders.
Step 3: Financing. Local financing is often prohibitively expensive in many African countries. This means that often high capex items cannot be financed by the buyer at an affordable price. Bringing along a financing package with your products can be the deciding factor between you and a competitor. My advice would be to approach UKEF, which provide a number of financial products that can be included in your offering.
Step 4: Go to market. Once you have completed steps one to three, you should have a clear picture on whether you have a marketable product and you can start to increase your development spend to sell your products.
GTR: Both of your companies do work that improves the lives of others around the world. How important is that kind of work to you, personally?
White: For me, the fact that we sell water and sanitation services to people who desperately need it around the world makes all the difference, and keeps me going when the going gets really tough.
In the UK, we often take it for granted that we have excellent services that provide us with the basic human needs such as electricity, water and sanitation, all of which are highly regulated under the rule of British law.
As well as being a human right, these basic services underpin social harmony and economic growth – without them it is difficult to have political stability and security for the local populations, and can often lead to vicious cycles of corruption and political upheaval.
In helping tens of millions of people in developing countries around the world in this way, providing them with the water and sanitation they desperately need, whilst at the same time boosting British exports, is for me, the perfect combination.
Holmes: My father’s family are from Zambia and South Africa, and from an early age I would visit them during my school holidays. I remember looking at the enormous inequality in South African society and finding it hard to comprehend that someone the same age as me could be living without basic services that I took for granted. Looking back, this has probably stayed with me and has influenced my degree at university and ultimately my career. Therefore, to answer your question, my main drive is to make a positive impact on whatever I do. In the case of Winch, I hope to be able to go back to a village in 10 years’ time and see the impact we have had on the community by providing the services we take for granted.
Photo from left to right: Alastair White, Geoffrey de Mowbray (BExA co-chair), Marcus Dolman (BExA co-chair), Jack Holmes