The Queen's Awards: Exporting high standards: Big and small: Lynne Curry reports on selling British excellence abroad

Click to follow
CLASSIC, cutaway, tab, or two styles of button-down. Of such collar talk was conversation composed over many a decade at Hilditch & Key.

Those not wishing to purchase their shirts in London, however, used to have to go to New York or Paris, as Jermyn Street, Fifth Avenue or the rue de Rivoli were the exclusive trinity empowered to supply the gentry, the aspiring gentry and those who just liked the feel of a good shirt. Customers emerged pounds 50 or pounds 60 poorer (at today's prices), but with split yokes, single-needle stitching and the two-piece hand-turned collar (the most important part of the garment) and real mother of peal buttons.

In 1981, hand-picked stores around the world were invited to stock Hilditch and Key shirts and in 1988, a formal wholesale division was established. Stockists are still carefully chosen but last year the division sold more than pounds 1m worth of British sartorial excellence, 87 per cent of that abroad.

It operates quietly from two offices in Glenrothes, Fife, inside the factory where the shirts are made by 76 workers, including specially-trained needlecrafters. At full strength, it has just five people. Frank Womby, director, his assistant, the account manager, the warehouseman and the London- based merchandiser each take a fifth of the credit for the company's first Queen's Award for Export Achievement.

The division is one of the smallest recipients of an export award, though not the only successful venture based on a handful of people.

Otodynamics, of Hatfield, Herts, has five employees engaged on developing, designing and manufacturing electronic hearing test equipment. Lightfoot Surfaces, of Great Doddington, Northants, is another five- body company which makes seamless rubber flooring used in stables, trailers and lorries.

At the other end of the size scale are the Ford motor company and Marks & Spencer, which employ 33,000 and 50,000 people respectively. Both aim for more popular taste than Hilditch & Key, although they share a commitment to consistently high standards. The St Michael logo remains in the same familiar font whether it sits inside a cardigan in Cardigan or on a jar of jam in Vienna, where the company last week opened its second franchise store.

Whereas Hilditch & Key are ultra- sensitive about popularising their shirts at the cost of their exclusivity (at no seam or junction will a stripe fail to meet exactly another stripe), Marks & Spencer and Ford see the award as a marker along the path to more dynamic exporting.

Marks & Spencer also won export awards in 1977 and 1984, its centenary year. This year, its export total is around pounds 200m, more than 80 per cent of the goods British made. Over the past six years, the export figure represents an 86 per cent increase - with a 30 per cent increase in overseas sales in the past year.

Consistent growth in Continental Europe has been outdone by 'spectacular' success in Hong Kong. Greece and Portugal, where the company has franchisees, are both up by 60 per cent. Nigel Colne, the main board director with responsibility for Europe, the Far East, and 71 franchises spread across 20 countries, said there seemed no geographic boundary to enthusiasm for M & S's trading style. 'There is no doubt that the consistency of our quality is very well rewarded. We set out to achieve good value because we're not the most expensive but we offer an international range of merchandise. There are certain particular sections, such as lingerie, which are successful here but even stronger abroad.'

While M & S knickers are being snapped up in Singapore, the sophisticates of Paris are wending their way to the balconied Boulevard Haussmann store, where they crowd round the bread counters and grab the white sliced. 'Britishness is a great help,' explains Mr Colne. 'In the centre of Paris there is an enormous demand for white sliced bread - this from the country that brought us baguettes and croissants. We sell more muffins in the Boulevard Haussmann than anywhere else.'

If Marks & Spencer relishes selling bread to the French, Ford enjoys exporting manifolds produced in Leamington Spa to its parent country, the US. The Leamington foundry has won the order to supply manifolds to manufacturing bases for future generations of the Zeta engine family - which will go into the North American version of the new Mondeo.

Since 1990, Ford has increased its exports by 34 per cent, selling pounds 2.19bn worth of vehicles and components in 1992. From Halewood, Dagenham and Southampton, 159,000 vehicles were sent abroad. From Bridgend and Dagenham 770,000 engines trundled out of the gates, destined for export.

On the Continent, 30,000 new Fords produced at the Halewood plant in Merseyside joined the roads last year - this amounted to 16 per cent of production and included 20,000 Escorts. More than half the production of Fiesta cars and vans produced at Dagenham was exported, compared with 16 per cent in 1990. This included 46,000 Courier 'high cube' vans.

Component plants made major contributions to the award. The Basildon radiator plant exported 70 per cent of its output; Swansea exported 108,000 axles and Halewood 260,000 transmissions; Enfield and Treforest exported two thirds of their output. Ford's chairman, Ian McAllister, said the award was achieved in face of deepening recession across all Ford's European markets.

A company spokesman said a letter of congratulation to the 33,000 workers would possibly be the extent of the celebratory gesture. Since each boosted Britain's export balance by an average of some pounds 6,000, there may be worse rewards than a large consignment of Hilditch & Key shirts.