How small fish compete in the global pond SMALL COMPANIES

QUEEN'S AWARDS A SPECIAL REPORT Innovation and initiative allow small companies to enter the world export market, writes Lynne Curry Smaal

Size is not important in the export field. Companies with a staff as small as seven, shipping the unusual (insects to eat pests), the unconventional (bicycles that fold into the size of a small suitcase) and the amazing (French wines to France), illustrate the diversity of small-scale British innovation.

Almost a quarter of the awards have gone to companies with fewer than 50 employees, and many of those have fewer than 20. For some, staying small is their strength.

EuroTalk, which makes language-learning CD-Roms starring the French cartoon character Asterix from its base in Fulham, augments its core staff of seven with more than 40 linguists, artists and technicians when it is making a new CD. It now produces 17, including eight for learning English, five French and two Spanish.

EuroTalk was set up by Richard Howeson and Andrew Ashe in 1990, as a breakaway project from their existing business. Their most expensive starting investment was royalties for Asterix, but now their CDs outsell Asterix publications in some countries, including Japan. "The idea of these CDs is to encourage people to speak," Mr Howeson said. The CDs are now exported to 30 countries, including Russia and India.

Small is the essence of the Brompton Bicycle Company. Its bikes fold in less than 15 seconds to the size of a small suitcase. They can be taken on to buses, trains and aircraft as luggage. The fascination for the bikes has been a great export strength for the firm, says company administrator, Nicola McGregor: "We don't do much marketing. In the Netherlands, one of our two main markets, our two distributors are absolutely sold on the bicycle and do it for us. We're a very small company; it's difficult enough keeping up with demand for the bikes."

Annual production is now approaching 5,000, with 60 per cent going abroad. Small does not come particularly cheap, however, with the range starting at £364.

When a French wine-lover wants to acquire a '45 or '61 Bordeaux, it would seem logical that the easiest place to acquire it is France. The fact that this is not the case has helped the success of Farr Vintners, of Pimlico, for which France is the strongest export market - usually of French wines. Now with a staff of 14 people, the company was set up by Lindsay Hamilton, fresh from Harrods wine department, and Stephen Browett, a French graduate who once drove a van for a wine shop, to specialise in fine wines.

Its turnover last year was £15.25m, with the average price per bottle £30. "The French can be quite chauvinistic," Mr Browett said. "If you're a wine merchant in France you only tend to sell wine from your particular area. If a wine merchant from Tokyo or New York wanted 10 cases of different vintages, they'd have to go to many different suppliers in France, but would only need one in England." Farr now exports wine to the Far East and the USA as well as Europe.

The small world of parasites and predators has brought business success to an entomologist, an agronomist, and a plant pathologist. Dr John Dale, Phil Walker, and Dr Robin Penna breed mites and parasites to tackle the red spider mite which bedevils greenhouse crops, the western flower thrip larvae, which attacks sweet peppers and flowers, and whitefly, which wreaks havoc on aubergines and other crops.

Biological Crop Protection (BCP), of Ashford, Kent, works alongside Wye College, London University, to find and breed natural predators. Nigel Jupe, an agriculturist who moved from the other side - the chemical pesticide industry - and the fourth director, said engineering a natural process could be complex. "Harvesting the insects is particularly tricky. Sometimes you can get them to come off themselves but sometimes you actually sell the culture as it is."

BCP, which has grown to 35 people, is now one of three major producers of natural predators. It began to export in 1988 and is strong in Belgium and Holland, where it works alongside Biobest, a producer of bees for the pollination of crops.

Mr Jupe said: "Over the next 20 years we expect biological control to increase but it will be a long haul to change people's behaviour and practices away from what they're used to."

With just eight employees, Underwater Excavation of Porthleven, Aberdeen, has won a Queen's Award for technological achievement. The company developed a propeller with high-pressure water jets fabricated on to the blade tips to rotate it. It operates without any physical contact with the sea bed, and is safe to use on live pipelines and other structures prone to damage. It also performed 400 times faster than the equipment it replaced when working on the Bruce field.

Among the other small winners is Pan Liner Agencies, an international shipping and forwarding agent which provides a door-to-door delivery service, invoicing and documentation, and arranges letters of credit. With 10 employees, it has recently opened new markets in Asia and Africa.

A company which started with five employees and an unpromising connection - it supplied the Midlands steel and coal industries - has won its third Queen's Award.

AES Engineering, of Rotherham, took over a tiny Derby engineering company after it lost the right to distribute an American-made mechanical seal, and went on to patent a new type of seal which compensates for angular misalignment in pumps.

Chris Rea, AES's managing director, said the move had originally been a matter of survival, but the product was a world-beater and won a Queen's Award for technological achievement in 1988.

North America, which was AES's original supplier, is now its biggest market. One of its largest customers is Mobil Shipping, which fitted double mechanical seals on cargo pumps used for unloading crude oil. Fifteen years after being set up, AES has grown from five to 145 people.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Assistant

£13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Pension Specialist was established ...

Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive

£23000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Report Writer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Technical Report Writer is re...

MBDA UK Ltd: Indirect Procurement Category Manager

Competitive salary & benefits!: MBDA UK Ltd: MBDA UK LTD Indirect Procurement...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness