Exports: Small firms make waves overseas: An annual award shows that some companies have defied the conventional wisdom by exploiting foreign markets

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The Independent Online
IT IS generally assumed that exporting is something a company does only when it has grown large in its domestic market. And research seems to bear this idea out.

For instance, the recently published Grant Thornton/ Business Strategies survey of European small to medium-sized enterprises found that only 40 per cent of UK companies in this category export - and those that do are on average 40 per cent larger than those that do not.

At least part of the reason for this is late payment - as smaller companies are more vulnerable to the problems associated with not being paid on time.

Consequently, the efforts of the select band of companies that have won prizes in the 25-year history of the government-backed Export Award for Smaller Businesses are especially noteworthy.

The five companies that last week received awards in this year's competition employ fewer than 400 people between them, yet earned more than pounds 22m in overseas sales.

They are Camlaw, a Tamworth designer and manufacturer of furnaces and heat treatment equipment; Caudwell Communications, a Stoke manufacturer and distributor of mobile phones and related machinery; Corin Medical of Cirencester, which supplies orthopaedic implants; MacAlister Elliott and Partners, a Lymington-based fishery development and management consultancy; and Sperrin Metal Products, a Londonderry designer and manufacturer of shelving, racking and storage systems. A further 10 companies were highly commended.

The award is sponsored by Overseas Trade Services, a joint Department of Trade and Industry and Foreign Office operation; Kompass British Exports, a Reed Information Services publication that also administers the scheme; Midland Bank; and Grant Thornton, the accountants. The scheme is also supported by the British Chambers of Commerce, British Invisibles, the CBI, the Institute of Export and the Trades Union Congress.

The prizes include professional advice, financial support for acquiring extra export skills or investigating and developing new markets, and money to be spent for the benefit of all employees.

In fact, there is growing evidence of small businesses becoming more interested in export. While exports' share of the overall UK economy has risen from a fifth when the award was set up in 1969 to a third, the number of companies eligible for the award has grown considerably.

A fifth of this year's 266 entrants have seen exports double in value in the past year. More importantly perhaps, 80 per cent of the winners since 1969 are still trading.

Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, said at the presentation that the 'entrepreneurial flair, ingenuity and hard work' of the winners had reaped rich rewards.

'Business is about being better, faster, cheaper, giving a first-class service and winning.'

This view was echoed by some of the winners. Howard Cartland, financial director of Camlaw, said: 'Camlaw are disproving rumours of the death of British manufacturing industry with their own dynamic approach to the identification of customer requirements and satisfaction.'

John Caudwell, managing director of Caudwell Communications, added: 'As a company, we are committed to absolute success in all we do.'

(Photograph omitted)