In case you’re wondering, the MBE - presented to Tony by Prince William earlier this year – was for ‘Services to International Trade and UK Exports’. The nomination for which came from UKTI – now DIT (Department for International Trade) so, as you might have guessed, Tony knows a thing or two about exporting.
It’s no surprise to hear that Tony (pictured above with the Duke of Cambridge) is also a DIT Export Champion – that is Tony spends part of his life preaching the message of exporting to UK businesses about the benefits.
While Tony has been working in exporting for 30 + years, he started his career as an accountant, but admits the ‘excitement was too much’, forcing him to take a fairly radical change of direction, which saw him subsequently working as an FD, an MD, commercial director, export consultant, a sales director, and even the VP of a US firm in Europe.
The one consistent in all the roles, was, however, exporting, and in markets right across the world, from the Gulf, to India, to the US, South Africa, South America, as well as the EU and China.
“It got a bit much though, really,” admits Tony. “At one point I was flying over 100 times a year. It was good for my air miles, but it was draining. I have a few stories I could tell you, especially about the airlines.”
In 2012, Tony, who now lives in Hale Barns but grew up in Didsbury, was pining for home and returned to be based in Manchester. Once back he wasted no time getting involved in a food production business making cooking sauces. The business thrived and soon had products in a number of supermarkets – and not just in the UK.
Having disposed of the business, he then helped launch Ten Acre with a business pal in 2014, making high end snacks. Think posh popcorn, and classy crisps.
“The idea was to make something high end, something that we could pitch to the more premium end of the market,” he said. “I’d already worked with the supermarkets before and I knew they were a nightmare to deal with, so we wanted to avoid them ideally. We also designed the products – from the ingredients and the packaging – to be export ready from the start. We had to make sure the ingredients would work overseas as well as the domestic market, but that was all part of the planning process.
“We were quickly selling on Virgin trains, on airlines, in top hotels, Holland & Barrett, but the icing on the cask was getting in to Fortnum & Mason. Somebody said to me, ‘why on earth are you chasing Fortnum, they only have one outlet, why not go after the supermarkets?’. The thing was, when I took the products to the Far East and said: ‘these are selling in Fortnum & Mason’, they couldn’t get enough of them. It was such a great PR opportunity and we used it to full advantage.”
Tony sold the business in January this year but is still involved with a company called Bean & Pod – a Salford based business making luxury chocolate products. The aim, naturally, is to export far and wide, and they have already sold to North America and Europe.
But where does Brexit leave the UK in terms of exporting - and how will businesses fare? “In terms of exporting, the UK has been punching below its weight for many years – as a nation we aren’t as good at it as we need to be, but hopefully we’re getting better,” says Tony. “As far as Brexit goes we should, in theory, do OK, as long as the politicians don’t mess it up – and at the moment it looks like they might. We really do need a clear Brexit – in that when we leave we must be able to sign our own trade agreements independently of the EU.
“I think Canada will do a trade deal with us pretty quickly after Brexit, and it should take about a day if we use the existing CETA deal it has with the EU as a blueprint. Then we can build on it and improve our position, hopefully. There’s deals to be done also with Commonwealth countries as well as China and the USA – and I think we’ll do well.
He added: “The only problem will be if we get it wrong. There are a few big companies in the UK who are lobbying the government hard for a customs union and doing a good job of scaring them.”
So, post Brexit, I ask, should more firms be exporting. “Frankly, yes,” says Tony. “Exporting isn’t that hard. It’s just selling in another country. There’s a perception that exporting is difficult. Well it’s not that different and if you know how to sell here in the UK, and you’re product is good, then you can sell in other countries too – it’s really that simple.
“You need three things – and I call it the three ‘Rs: the right product, the right place, and the right price! There’s so much help out there now too. DIT are upping their game and can put you in touch with the markets, and then there’s distributors for getting products from A-B. When it comes to exporting, there’s always someone who can help,” he said.