Great things from small packages

small business: Roger Trapp discovers that size isn't everything when it comes to selling your wares abroad
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The Independent Online
Edwin Trisk Systems is hardly a name that trips off the tongue. But it is a great British success story. Formed just seven years ago, it now has a turnover of pounds 5.8m, of which no less than pounds 5m comes from exports to more than 50 countries around the world.

The company specialises in producing infra-red curing and drying equipment for painting vehicles. It supplies body shops, car-makers and paint-manufacturers' training centres. Already the winner of a Queen's Award for Export Achievement and the North-east Exporter of the Year prize, on 5 July it became one of five companies to win this year's Export Award for Smaller Businesses.

It's an impressive performance. But Sunderland-based Edwin Trisk and the other award-winners - audio-console producer Canford Audio, computer component-maker Chase Research, mountaineeringequipment supplier DMM International and make-up company Midland Cosmetic Sales - are just a few of the many small companies selling their wares abroad.

Research just published by National Westminster Bank shows that more than 80 per cent of Britain's 100,000 active export businesses have a turnover of less than pounds 750,000. Manufacturing firms lead the way, accounting for more than a third of small exporters. Even very small manufacturing businesses are more likely to export than businesses in other sectors. Service companies take a large share of the overall market, but mainly in the shape of firms with sales of more than pounds 750,000.

Ian Peters, head of small-business services at NatWest, which claims to be the leading lender to small businesses, says: "At last, we have real evidence that smaller businesses are making a significant contribution to the UK export market."

He believes, however, the figure could be much higher if businesses overcame the barriers they face. Among these are language difficulties, fear of the unknown, the time and cost involved in finding trading partners, and the worry that they will not operate as effectively abroad. The study also reported problems with finding distribution channels and market information.

Edwin Trisk, however, is determined to improve its selling methods, building and expanding its distribution channels. It has already set up a marketing database detailing the requirements of individual body shops.

DMM International, based in the climbing country of Llanberis, Gwynedd, has also put effort into distribution and marketing. With export earnings passing pounds 1m and exceeding home sales for the first time in 1993-94, the 13-strong company attributes much of its success to its multilingual approach. Documentation and sales literature is in a variety of languages - vital for a company selling into such countries as Japan and France as well as North America. It has also employed foreign nationals to aid communication and opened bank accounts in the countries in which it operates - a similar approach to that adopted by Canford Audio, another north-eastern company, which in less than two decades has built up a turnover of pounds 10m (of which 25 per cent is exports) supplying audio equipment to broadcasters, hospitals, schools and others by mail order.

Midland Cosmetic Sales - whose exports account for nearly 70 per cent of turnover of just under pounds l0m - has carried the principle a stage further by manufacturing products for specific markets.

Since serving different markets requires flexibility and the ability to respond swiftly to changing circumstances, small businesses are perhaps better placed than their larger counterparts to adapt. The coming years are likely to see more small companies add to the pounds 22m contributed to export earnings by this year's five award-winners.

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