Recovery: North-east leads export charge: Ships in bottles and flasks for bulls' semen are helping to replace traditional industry

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The Independent Online
THE announcement that Sunderland-based Nissan had overtaken Ford and Rover to become Britain's biggest car exporter shone the spotlight once more on the North-east's ability to notch up exports.

Nissan shipped more than 182,000 vehicles overseas last year, worth nearly pounds 1bn in export earnings. But it is just one of the region's successful exporters.

Companies making everything from miniature ships in bottles to vacuum containers for storing bulls' semen regularly receive plaudits. Seven firms in the North-east were given the Queen's Award for Export Achievement last year and an eighth won an 'export excellence' award in December.

Excluding the oil terminal at Shetland's Sullom Voe, Teesside is now the UK's second-largest port. Peter Watson, marketing director for Teesside Development Corporation, sees two reasons for this.

First, he says, the North- east's traditional industries fell on hard times before other parts of Britain - forcing companies to target export markets early.

Secondly, companies in Japan, the US and the Far East have recognised that the region is a good base from which to penetrate the European market. Within Europe the UK is a relatively cheap country, and the North-east is a relatively cheap part of Britain.

It is also a good place from which to distribute goods throughout Europe - a point Mr Watson has made frequently to companies in his overseas travels to boost inward investment to the region.

When Margaret Thatcher was photographed in 1987 striding across Teesside's industrial wasteland, Teesside Development Corporation was only three weeks old and unemployment was running at 28 per cent.

Now there are 50 Japanese firms in the North-east and 19 companies from countries such as Taiwan, Australia, Singapore and Korea.

Well-known names include Sony, Komatsu, Fujitsu, Samsung and Goldstar. The region was also chosen by Siam Furniture as the site of the first inward manufacturing investment from Thailand in Britain.

Ironically, Mr Watson has turned exporter himself. As part-time course director of the only inward investment marketing course in the world, he has been lecturing South Africans on how to attract companies to their country.

British-owned firms in the region play their part too, explains Karen Brunton, who leads overseas trade development missions for the Northern Development Company, a combined public and private sector development body.

An attraction of many of the missions is the level of financial sponsorship they attract from the Department of Trade and Industry.

A forthcoming two-week mission to Thailand and Indonesia, for example, costs each company pounds 850 - including 13 nights in a hotel and return flights. A mission to Australia departing on 9 May costs pounds 350, including optional Asia Pacific stopovers.

According to Ms Brunton, the NDC is the third largest organiser of overseas trade missions in Britain and plays a valuable part in winning export business. In the first six months of the financial year, 180 companies went on nine trade missions to 12 countries. Most companies win orders on the mission, Ms Brunton said, but these are not the object of the exercise.

'In some corners of the world, the British still don't have the best reputation for delivery and follow-up,' she says. Larger orders follow three to six months after the initial trade mission, when the overseas buyer's confidence has been gained.

The point is echoed by Ian Campbell, director-general of the Institute of Export. He cites the example of the Gateshead textile machinery manufacturer, Bonas Machine Company Ltd, which won the NatWest- Financial Times Exporter Excellence Award.

'The awards were specifically designed to examine exporting philosophy and ethos in depth, rather than just acknowledging turnover and profit,' he says.

Five criteria were employed, ranging from 'export efficiency', which covers technical factors such as risk assessment and documentation skills, to 'export direction', which gave points for strategic planning, product standardisation and management internationalisation.

Bonas exports to 75 countries and its export turnover has reached 85 per cent of sales. This has risen from pounds 18.1m in 1990/91 to pounds 30m in 1992/3.

(Photograph omitted)