Weakening demand within the European Union has seen trouble in Britain's main export market, while the trade deficit outside Europe continues to widen. Expanding opportunities and sales at such a time is a real measure of achievement.
Duncan McKenzie, senior economist at the Confederation of British Industry, said that export growth slowed in 1995 from double-figure increases to 2.5 per cent. "The major export market in Europe has been very sluggish," he says. "We are keen to see companies develop successful long-term strategies. We don't want to see growth in exports just to use up spare capacity."
The volatile nature of some exporting was no more clearly demonstrated than by the fortunes of Anglo Beef Processors and Eurostock Meat Marketing. Both companies - winners in this year's Queen's Awards - have seen their business devastated by the BSE crisis and the ban on British beef exports.
For Eurostock, based in Northern Ireland, the ban was particularly galling as the province has had a low incidence of BSE and has a system of tracing diseased animals unique to the UK. More than 80 per cent of the company's beef production was exported outside Northern Ireland.
The tough trading conditions are reflected by a fall in both the number of entries for the Queen's Award for Export and a decline in those successful. This year's list includes 107 export winners, down from a record high of 140 in 1995. Entries fell from 1,315 to 1,191.
Officials at the Queen's Award's office believe that the trend in export awards has fallen back to that seen before the boom days of the late 1980s, with the number of winners being close to the overall average.
The fall in technology winners is of more concern, as the decline has been consistent since a record year in 1990 - the silver jubilee of the awards - when 49 companies were successful and the volume of entries was almost 400, compared with 254 this year. This year's list of 16 winners, down one from 1995, is the lowest total since 1973.
The Queen's Award for Environmental Achievement is too new for any significant pattern to have emerged for a reliable number of entries. This year there are six winners, the same as in 1995, while there were 116 entries, down from 137 a year earlier.
As ever, there is great diversity among the winners. Healey & Baker, the first estate agent to win an export award, mixes happily with New Holland UK, winning its second award in two years for the export of tractors and components. Small companies with fewer than 200 employees represent 54 per cent of winners, while the 36 firms with under 50 employees make up 28 per cent. All the five smallest export winners - Paper Makers Export, Garique (textiles), Glass Eels (live eel export), Oxford Metrics (motion capture systems) and Corsair Toiletries - have fewer than 15 employees.
The pride of British industry and commerce are also represented in such household names as Rover, British Steel, Bass, Burberrys, JCB, Weetabix and Storehouse (BhS and Mothercare). Marks and Spencer and Hoover are both winners, but not, as would be more likely, for export success, but for technological and environmental achievement respectively.
Nearly a third of awards have gone to companies making their first entry, while 65 per cent have never won a Queen's Award before. A total of 26 awards go to companies who are current holders (ie they have won an award in the past five years).
Manufacturing exports make up a disproportionately large percentage of winners, while those responsible for "invisible" exports in the service industry - dominant in the economy as a whole - represent just 15 per cent of winners. Part of the problem is being able to measure the extent of foreign business for parts of the service sector, such as domestic tourism and entertainments.
The oldest winner is Oxford University Press, founded in 1623, while others, like Mobile Systems International, were formed as recently as 1989. Having a foreign parent company is no bar to success and 28 per cent of winners are subsidiaries of overseas companies. These vary from a subsidiary of an American-based parent to a Japanese-owned whisky producer and Rover, owned by BMW.
The only company to achieve awards in both the export and technology categories was Digi-Media Vision, part of the News International group. The company has pioneered the development and production of systems to compress television signals so that multiple programmes can be conveyed across terrestrial, satellite or cable networks.
Motorola is a double double export winner. Two subsidiaries have won awards both in 1995 and 1996.
Trak Microwave Europe, Dundee-based manufacturers of high technology components for satellites, defence and air traffic control radars and radio base-stations, has won an export award for the second year in succession.
Alan McNeill, marketing manager, says the company remains enthusiastic. "Exporting isn't easy, but we thrive on it - we enjoy the buzz of dealing with those from other countries in their own languages and customs. Our customers really enjoy coming to Scotland. There is still a certain mystique and fascination which keeps them coming back."Reuse content