As international trade director for the North East England Chamber of Commerce (Chamber), Julie Underwood is responsible for helping local businesses realise their exporting potential – a task that became all the more complex when the UK voted to leave the EU in June 2016.
But the uncertainty surrounding Brexit doesn’t seem to faze Julie – who studied modern languages at university. Instead, she is mindful that international trade has been the membership organisation’s remit for the last two centuries.
“When the Chamber was set up 200 years ago, one of the key drivers from the beginning was to help businesses trade across the world –it’s something that’s always been there,” she says.
A lot of businesses realise there’s going to be issues with regards to Brexit but they’re still optimistic and positive; trade isn’t going to stop.
Julie, who has worked at the Chamber for more than 10 years, previously built up extensive knowledge and experience of exporting. Initially, this was by working in business development roles at several global manufacturing companies based in the North East, before she moved into more of an advisory role, where she supported SMEs as part of the Sedgefield and Shildon Development Agency.
Since joining the Chamber in 2007, Julie has held several positions – but one constant in her job description has been around global trade support.
As international trade director (a role she was appointed to in 2012), Julie oversees the Chamber’s delivery of the North East’s Export Strategy, where her team work closely with the
Department for International Trade (formerly UK Trade and Investment) to provide an array of activity for new and existing North East-based exporters.
Julie reflects: “We always say that for businesses to grow internationally, they need to have three components: time, money and motivation. If they have these then there’s so much support available for them to achieve their ambition.”
Support from the Chamber tends to begin with a one-to-one meeting with an international trade advisers.
“In these meetings, we will discuss where the business is at, plans, financial situation, products, skills and international ambitions,” Julie reveals. “From there, the adviser can start to sketch out some beneficial markets and some next steps for the companies to take.”
The Chamber also regularly hosts a programme of workshops and events on all aspects of international trading – ranging from help with global pricing strategies to advice on navigating the cultural nuances when conducting business in different countries.
By way of an example, Julie explains that in South America, “it’s not unusual for people to meet two or three times before business is discussed” while in North America people tend to be more direct and prefer you “said what you wanted from a business transaction” from the start.
“China also has a very formal business culture that’s focused on hierarchy. You could upset somebody in a business meeting by where you sit or how you present your business card,” Julie adds.
Forging strong personal relationships in overseas markets remains key for any exporter and the North East England Chamber of Commerce utilises its network of fellows Chambers based across the globe to help foster these links.
The regional Chamber, on behalf of the Department for International Trade, organises regular international trade missions, allowing North East businesses to visit countries, learn about trading opportunities and begin building relationships.
Last year, sector-specific missions took place in Boston (creative and life sciences), China (beverage and hospitality) and India (pharmaceuticals), while three additional trade missions to Berlin, Paris and Dublin were aimed at smaller enterprises with attendees paying just £99 for a two-day trip to meet potential stakeholders in those countries.
Perhaps the most important part of the Chamber’s international services, Julie reveals, is providing help for one of the most daunting aspects of global trading – the dreaded paperwork!
“We have an experienced team of seven who can support and train businesses on all export procedures and documentation depending on what the product is and where they are exporting to or importing from,” she says.
Of course, depending on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, there could potentially be significant increases in the import/export paperwork required for trading in the EU and the Chamber team continue to monitor developments to ensure members receive the most up-to-date and relevant information.
Julie’s current advice to exporters is to “look at your exposure and try making some contingency plans. For example, if you currently rely on people shipping products to you in a week, think about what you will have to do if that gets extended to three weeks.
“Also, ask yourself if you have people in the business who can support what promises to be a huge period of change?”
In addition to providing advice and practical support on international trade, the Chamber is also heavily involved in lobbying Government to ensure the most “frictionless” environment for North East businesses to trade internationally.
Julie reveals that last year the Chamber took a group of member businesses to 9 Downing Street where they met with Lord Bridges (then Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Exiting the European Union) while, more recently, representatives from the North East England Chamber of Commerce joined their national counterparts to meet with Baroness Fairhead, the Minister of State for Trade and Export Promotion at the Department for International Trade.
Julie and her team also hosted a round-table event last month where Chamber members were given the opportunity to meet with DIT representatives and discuss the UK leaving the EU and the impact on them.
I think it’s brilliant that businesses, even when they’re busy, are prepared to take time out, sit around a table and get involved. I guess this is because they’ve been supported by the Chamber in the past and value that.
Future plans for Julie, her team and the Chamber as a whole –unsurprisingly – centre around the UK’s departure from the EU and following the Chamber’s Brexit Summit, which was held at Crowne Plaza Stephenson Quarter on the one-year-to go, Julie reveals the organisation is working on a programme of activity to ensure North East businesses are best prepared for the eventual outcomes of Brexit.
She concludes: “It’s all about keeping on top of the developments and as things change, as debates happen and bills pass, the Chamber will translate this into practical and straightforward help for North East businesses.”