Exporting and internationalisation are firmly on the agenda of most Western governments – they're seen as crucial to revitalising Western economies. This is underpinned by evidence from the Asian crisis of the 1990s and how those countries grew their way out of trouble, as well as the example of post-unification Germany.
That said, why have we in the UK mid-market not been as successful as we could have been in cross-border buy-and-builds and internationalisation?
This is a very complex question, but I would argue that there are three important contributory factors:
1. Over the past 20 to 30 years, the UK has progressively moved from being a manufacturing-led economy to a service-based one. This has largely been driven by the rise of the emerging markets and their ability to provide cheap, good-quality manufactured goods at prices that the UK could not begin to compete with. UK manufacturers have retreated to focus on high-tech/high-quality products, or niche markets in particular.
2. Over a similar period we have witnessed the impact of the dismantling of controls on global capital flows begun by Reagan and Thatcher that culminated in the recent financial depression. Demand from the consumer and the public sectors fuelled by a mountain of leverage meant that frankly, for many firms it was easier to focus on serving domestic requirements rather than chasing more difficult export markets. Given that the time of easy credit is over and the age of austerity and increasing regulation is firmly in place, ambitious mid-market firms are only now realising that they must look overseas for growth as domestic demand is likely to be on its knees for the foreseeable future.
3. The management teams of UK mid-market firms are typically reluctant to embrace and overcome the acute language and cultural challenges inherent in executing successful cross-border buy-and-builds. It is rare indeed to find a management team that views its playing field as the world, and rarer still to find one with the skill and understanding of how to build a high-performing team capable of executing on the global stage.
How can we overcome these challenges? Well, in the UK we do start with some advantages:
- The pound has fallen markedly against most currencies since 2008, making our exports cheaper.
- There are some sectors such as e-commerce, IT and professional services where the UK has a strong competitive position in global markets.
- The UK has a long track record of innovation and creativity in the consumer and media sector.
From our experience, the fundamental ingredient is an ambitious management team with a clear vision of how a buy-and-build can transform the economics of a sector and the understanding that as the business develops, there will need to be a greater focus on team dynamics and cultural issues. Without these qualities, companies are doomed to miss out in the global marketplace.
Wol Kolade is managing director at Isis Equity Partners.