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**.”
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.”
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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.”