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A successful operation

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UK manufacturer Brandon Medical is achieving enviable growth in some of the world’s most challenging markets.

"A simple technical glitch is potentially deadly if it occurs during a hospital procedure. One UK firm is doing its bit to make sure every element of operating theatres is as dependable as possible.

Leeds-based Brandon Medical’s most advanced product is a digital hub that integrates medical equipment with smart building technology. Artificial intelligence systems collect and analyse data constantly to protect the patient.

Among the advantages is that theatres can be monitored remotely by a technician, and any problems either fixed online or by theatre staff themselves via instant advice. 

That’s an asset in the NHS. It’s even more useful for hospitals in remote parts of central Asia or Africa, where the journey to make a physical repair might be prohibitively long and arduous.

“We can deliver these very sophisticated solutions anywhere in the world,” says Brandon’s chairman, Graeme Hall. 

Asian tigers still roar

Brandon is taking full advantage of this capability. For over 70 years, the company has provided healthcare professionals with reliable, high-quality and affordable medical equipment packages for operating theatres and critical care. Its equipment can be found in surgeries, clinics and hospitals in over 70 countries.

The business was already exporting to the Middle East in the early 1990s, when Graeme and his brother, Adrian, led its rebranding from an engineering firm to a medical devices manufacturer. The Halls have gradually grown international sales, which now represent half of their business.

Asia Pacific was the primary target. “When we started, the term ‘Asian tigers’ was in vogue – and that region is still very much where the world’s main growth is coming from,” Graeme explains. 

“Although countries like Malaysia are very well developed, their healthcare system is nowhere near as comprehensive as in Europe, so there is a lot of growth to come in our sector. And while a lot of the populations are younger, health needs are rising because they are starting to pick up western-style diseases as they get wealthier.”

Steps to success

Brandon Medical has established a sound working process for entering new markets. At first sales efforts are led by UK managers travelling to the location. When a sales flow is established through local distributors, local country managers are appointed. 

The next phase is creating a physical presence in the region. In south-east Asia, this stage was marked with investment in a purpose-built regional showroom and marketing centre in Kuala Lumpur.

“The showroom moves our services closer to the client and distributor base,” Graeme says. “The big international medical exhibitions are in Germany and Dubai, which are a long way to come if you’re in Thailand. It’s a lot more cost-effective for clients to reach Malaysia.”

The solution is to recruit talented people in the region who are familiar with the culture but also understand western business practices.

Graeme Hall | Chairman at Brandon Medical

Mastering culture

India is the next priority on Brandon’s list: it already has a small base in Hyderabad. But Graeme does not understate the challenges of cracking such an expansive and complex market.

“India looks as if it should be easy to understand, because the British and Indian cultures have been so intertwined,” he says. “In fact, it’s the size of a continent and in practice it’s very difficult for a newcomer to unravel what is really several different cultures. And Indians are the best negotiators in the world!

“The solution is to recruit talented people in the region who are familiar with the culture but also understand western business practices.”

Adapting to new cultures is a constant challenge. “In some countries, even if they give you a physical contract it doesn’t necessarily mean you have an agreement – and sometimes there’d be no legal system to enforce that,” Graeme says. “Trying to overlay British methods isn’t going to work – you have to understand the culture in order to be a good supplier and partner to that country.”

HSBC supports the firm by understanding its needs in each territory: “HSBC’s trade credit facility* is particularly helpful in its flexibility, especially for bigger projects,” says Graeme. “They also minimise our risk in each market by fixing our foreign currency costs regardless of fluctuations**.”

British reputation

Another major challenge for the sector is the rise in market-specific regulation. Brandon stopped supplying China because it found the certification regulations too complex and expensive, though the firm is now preparing to return to the country.

“Fifteen years ago, most countries accepted western European or US device regulation. Now It can take a year to register medical devices in a new country,” says Graeme.

The ‘made in Britain’ tag is still an advantage for exporters, however: “Where in the past it might have been the products, it’s now as much about the quality of British companies, which are seen as well organised and particularly trustworthy.”

Get early expertise

Brandon had its most successful trading year to date in 2020, growing revenue by 33% to £10.8m. That was despite the impact of Covid-19, which halted some projects.

In this context the company’s diverse geographical base was an asset. While some international healthcare projects might not resume, western markets’ superior borrowing powers means their projects have generally only been delayed by the pandemic, says Graeme.

The balance of the company’s sales will continue to tip in favour of international trade, set to reach two-thirds of revenue in the next three to five years. “Although we have 30% sales growth in the UK, exports have more potential in the long run,” Graeme says.

In fact, his only regret is not having moved faster to capitalise on overseas opportunities. “When you’re a small company, you have to build as you go, but in retrospect we did too much ourselves,” he says.

“If I’d known what I know now, I would have started earlier to bring in some experienced people to speed up internationalisation, both in the UK and in local marketplaces.”

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