Business Essentials: It seals doors against rising water... Now it wants to open doors to new markets

At Floodguards International, achieving a British quality standard has not translated into overseas success, says Kate Hilpern

Until recently, anyone in the UK wanting to protect their home or business from flooding had no option but to lay down the sandbags and hope for the best. Now, though, there are around 150 companies offering a variety of products that claim to push back the tide when storms cause rivers to burst their banks. The problem for consumers, faced with all this choice, is knowing which products they can trust.

A British Standards Institution (BSI) Kitemark is the obvious answer. At least, it was to Floodguards International, which became one of the first flood-protection manufacturers to achieve the standard.

"We worked hard for this because we thought the Kitemark would be accepted nationally, as well as in other parts of the world," says sales manager Gavin George. "Since we are looking to expand internationally, it felt like a good investment, even though it cost us £25,000 - a lot of money to a small firm."

Indeed, BSI's brochure states: "For manufacturers, a Kitemark licence has the potential to open doors to overseas markets."

A year on, though, and Floodguards, based in Wokingham, Berkshire, has found the mark is far from universally recognised. "We are being pushed towards achieving new standards of accreditation in each country we enter," says Mr George.

The company isn't just wondering if the investment was worth while. It would also like to know what guidance and financial support might be available for a UK business that wants to expand internationally but faces standards issues.

With a turnover of £2.6m, Floodguards has so far installed protection in more than 500 UK properties - a figure that is rising quickly. Mr George claims this is because the company's products protect doors and other openings in a unique way.

"Just like an arch dam, our guards offer a curved face to the weight of water. This means the immense forces are transmitted towards the edges where the seal is strengthened, rather than bending and weakening the seal, as happens with a flat flood board."

While most of these guards have been sold direct to homeowners, the company has also fitted a number of properties through water companies and housing associations. Recently, a council in Scotland agreed to protect its housing stock with the guards.

Internationally, the company has one distributor in France, two in the US, and is currently negotiating with distributors in Germany. It is also looking at potential deals in Holland, Russia, Hong Kong and Australia.

Mr George accepts there is some justification for having different standards because the fabric of buildings can differ from country to country. "Nevertheless, we believed we would have a lot of credibility with our BSI Kitemark, and that doesn't always seem to be the case."

While the standard has been important in winning UK contracts, there are examples here of big buyers such as councils and water firms still opting for non-accredited and untested products. "So there is a lot to be considered before investing in accreditation in foreign markets."

The Kitemark is a certification registered under the Trade Mark Act 1994.

www.floodguards.com

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Barry Franklin, business adviser, Business Link for London

"Floodguards International is going about its business in a sound, professional manner. The BSI Kitemark investment seems high, but without doubt it does provide credibility.

"This should have a positive impact on the company's marketing, although there will be certain customers who consider the flood risk in their area too small to warrant the expense of properly tested products.

"With its ambitious overseas expansion plans, Floodguards International will have to make the commercial decision about obtaining local standards accreditation on a market-by-market basis.

"The company would be well advised to tap into the broad range of guidance and support available from UK Trade & Investment, the government organisation that supports UK- based companies trading internationally, and through Business Link International's trade advisers.

"These consultants are dedicated professionals who have many years' experience in international trade. They work in conjunction with the government's commercial posts throughout the world to provide practical help and advice to exporters."

Pete Ferns, director, NatWest Business Banking

"Floodguards International has clearly seen huge growth in the past few years and the company is already experiencing success abroad, despite concerns over accreditation in different countries.

"The British Standards Institution Kitemark is recognised by more than 80 per cent of the British population, and the certification means that a product has been tested against a specific standard.

"However, meeting a UK specification does not necessarily mean compliance with local standards abroad.

"You will encounter different government regulations in any country that you choose to operate in, so try to get a full list of the things that you will need to comply with. Details should be available from any foreign embassy in the UK.

"When you decide to start up a new operation or expand internationally, I would recommend that you research and plan the move in advance. Your UK bank will be able to make this easier by supplying a list of corresponding banks in the country that you have chosen.

"The bank will also be able to advise on the different forms of export finance that may be available to you."

Frank Post, group director, British Standards Institution

"Floodguards International clearly has a great product and is doing excellent business in the UK with the Kitemark's help.

"The particular Kitemark scheme it has adopted is one based on a specification written to address typical flood conditions in the UK.

"However, this already forms the basis for a specification being developed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, and in time, through the British Standards Institution's international work, it may well form the basis for future international requirements, which is to Floodguards' future advantage.

"In the meantime, for the company to carry on making inroads into international markets, it must continue to research the legal, technical, certification and standards requirements of the individual countries it wants to enter.

"This is a service offered by the British Standards Institution and a good place to start would be www.bsi-global.com/export. This website outlines the Five Steps to Successful Exporting, flagging up the laws, regulations, standards, specifications, codes, patents and personnel requirements that are likely to be encountered."

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