"The missus rang me on Tuesday to tell me the house had caught fire. The housekeeper's sitting-room had burnt out and we could have lost the whole house," said the Government's most-travelled minister, who has clocked up nearly 400,000 miles in three years.
Pacing his office in Victoria, Mr Needham was giving a convincing impression of a salesman with a mission, tired and somewhat stressed by the pace of events, but reeling off his timetable with relish.
Shouting through the side door to check details with his private-office staff, he said: "Sunday and Monday were in Israel, Tuesday was Gaza, Tuesday night was Jordan and I was back here on Wednesday.
"I went home and changed my suit and the plane left for Tokyo at 11am on Thursday. I got to Tokyo at 8.50 on Friday morning, or midnight our time, and had a complete day on business there.
"Then on Saturday morning at 6am I went to the Japan 2000 conference in northern Japan and left it at 6am on Monday for a full day in Tokyo including dinner.
"After a breakfast meeting on Tuesday morning in Tokyo I took a plane at lunchtime to London, where I arrived at three and went to the office until seven to do my papers."
That was when news came through from home of the fire. He jetted off again yesterday with 35 businessmen for a five-day trade mission to South Africa.
Needham bragging about his travels, some of his more earthbound Westminster colleagues may carp. Constant flying has a certain glamour, but with a gruelling schedule, trade can also be a thankless posting in career terms, glad-handing your way around the world without actually making much political mileage at home. Newspapers and TV mostly ignore trade missions, and they take up time other politicians devote to parliamentary manoeuvrings.
Mr Needham, a businessman before he became a minister, is the sixth Earl of Kilmorey, although his Who's Who entry says he does not use the title. He briefly achieved popular fame when he was overheard wishing "that old cow" (his then boss, Margaret Thatcher) would resign.
Working for the President of the Board of Trade, Michael Heseltine, her unsuccessful challenger, he has become the longest-serving trade minister since the Tories came to power. Mr Needham nevertheless says he still enjoys the job.
"The travel is just the gloss. The real work of this department is to put together a strategy that delivers to our customers, the business community, products that give the backing and support they require," he says.
The products, according to one of his senior officials, are information, advice, access and influence, supplemented by a financial infrastructure of export credits. Behind this business-school-speak is a quiet revolution in the way trade promotion works. The sales effort is run jointly with the Foreign Office by Ray Mingay, director-general of export promotion, who is a DTI official. He also has undersecretary rank in the Foreign Office, sitting on its appointments boards, encouraging the selection of diplomats with commercial experience. The basic building blocks of the strategy are market plans covering 80 countries, each of which is overseen by a DTI official, and for big markets such as the US by several. Their job - according to an official - is to "do nothing else but eat, think and breathe exports to that market alone".
Since 1992, the DTI has built a team of 100 specialist export promoters, seconded from industry for two years, who identify and exploit opportunities.
Mr Needham cites Peter Bacon, seconded from Philips, and responsible for electronics and components, who spotted a role for British component producers in supplying Japanese-owned equipment makers in Europe.
He started a Japan export association, has taken representatives of up to 15 component companies at a time to Japan on three missions, introduced them to manufacturers and has seen them make sales to the companies' European plants and now to their home-based Japanese and Far Eastern factories. First, manufacturers had to be persuaded to design their products to take British components, and that meant seeing them on their own ground.
The DTI also runs the Overseas Projects Board for promoting capital equipment exports, and is financing 70 export counsellors for smaller businesses in the network of regional Business Links offices in the UK.
Abroad, commercial performance affects the size of embassy budgets, a message not lost on ambassadors. And there is a co-ordinated effort to make every Whitehall department evolve its own trade strategy, with ministers pressed to take businessmen routinely on foreign trips - for example, firefighting equipment manufacturers with the Home Office.
How can Mr Needham be sure the £70m-a-year export promotion budget is well spent? The DTI counts orders received after trade missions and overseas fairs. Attitude surveys among companies also show a respectably high satisfaction rate.
More importantly, the reputation of the DTI in industry under Mr Heseltine has changed radically from the 1980s, when his predecessors shrank the department but failed to give it a new mission. Many officials just sat waiting for the phone to ring.
Mr Needham hopes the trade work will not become a political football. "The most important thing is to institutionalise what we are doing so it will last beyond changes of minister and changes of government."Reuse content