12th December 2017

In the week leading up to the EU Summit, this timely event brought together over 100 Thames Valley Chamber (TVCC) members and local stakeholders in the region. Hosted by Microsoft at its Thames Valley Park Campus in Reading, the event was organised in conjunction with Amelia Bishop Consulting. The agenda was packed with practical advice from experts in their field.

Delegates were advised to plan ahead, even though the final outcome of a trade deal is unknown. The announcements made that morning in Brussels had paved the way for these negotiations to begin. The recommendations made to members included the need to undertake contingency planning, risk assessments, contract revision, supply chain resilience, workforce analysis, devise an exporting strategy and seize new opportunities.

Anastassia Beliakova, Head of Trade Policy, British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) summed up the current situation: “The Brexit negotiations seem never-ending, but this is just the start of the process. This week we knew the focus would be on Citizens Rights and the Divorce Bill, but the real surprise was the Irish border issue. The BCC is lobbying for the transition period to be as long as possible and announced as soon as possible. This is important for businesses with longer planning cycles.

“What the future relationship looks like is still open for negotiation. The mechanism for a ‘partnership’ is still to be agreed. The alignment of regulatory issues is far reaching and needs pressure from businesses to get this right. The BCC engagement with Westminster and its multiple touch points is at an all-time high. There are no answers now but with regular meetings and trade statements we are in a position to influence the detail.”

Hugh Milward, Senior Director, Corporate, External & Legal Affairs, Microsoft UK commented: “the movement of people and protection of data flow is vital for us. Some engineers in our research centre in Cambridge have already left to work in different countries due to the uncertainty. We must attract the talent we need to service customers and to grow. The reciprocal arrangement announced is therefore positive. Customers have a fundamental need to access their data wherever it is – there has to be an agreement and is a real concern.”

Next was a panel discussion on the key factors facing UK industry with Mark Beard, Executive Chairman, Beard Construction; Ian Howells, Senior Vice President, Honda Motor Europe and Hugh Milward.

Mark said: “The vote to leave has affected investment decisions but this has stopped the construction industry from overheating. The European supply chain has been affected and this has caused short term difficulties. There has been a reliance on immigrant labour – 12% of ours are foreign, some have gone home and less are arriving. This has presented a new challenge for the industry to look at the way we are operating. The big question is whether there is a cliff edge on labour. In London yes but less in other areas. This could lead to higher wages.”

Starting your Brexit Planning was delivered by Amelia Bishop, Senior Brexit Operational Lead and Bob Devine, Senior Brexit Strategic Lead, Amelia Bishop Consulting.

Amelia advised: “Work out your levels of vulnerability and start contingency planning with different scenarios. Your competition may already be doing this. Without the right information, we will struggle to understand how to deal with the changes. Don’t wait for more clarity on what’s happening. Embark on a journey starting with internal awareness, consultation with stakeholders, impact on recruitment/ retention, industry impact assessments and then detailed plans. These should include growth, sales, productivity and the supply chain.”

Business practicalities around Brexit was the theme of a panel chaired by Bruce Potter, Chairman, Blake Morgan; Rebecca Ireland, Partner, Blake Morgan; David Jinks, Head of Consumer Research, ParcelHero and Angus Murray, International Trade Adviser, South East, Department for International Trade (DIT).

Bruce introduced the session by saying it was important to understand the business practicalities and what’s driving them and articulate views through TVCC to create a loud and consistent voice for concerns.

Rebecca talked about the announcements made about EU citizens right to remain but advised: “There is still a level of uncertainty. Employees can apply for citizenship for six more years so this would provide reassurance. Keep calm, keep the conversation going and build into talent management and succession planning”

David Jinks, with his experience at ParcelHero, a comparison site for domestic and international couriers said: “There has been an increase in exports since the Referendum. There is no red tape now, but this will change. Don’t panic as current non-EU experience helps – there has been a 20% increase in exports to the USA in the past year and emerging markets such as India are fast growing. Understand the tariffs in place and be aware of packaging weights and volume which can affect this.”

Angus agreed and added: “In addition, testing and labelling are important. We have a market access database available to identify tariffs. We advise looking at supply chain sustainability, contractual arrangements and intellectual property. The weak pound has seen a bounce in exports and this is helped considerably by the positive perception of Brand Britain. The success of the Queen’s Award winners has also made its mark (several Thames Valley businesses received an Award this year).”

Bruce concluded by saying there are many challenges ahead but there are solutions and we can be positive about the future.

Paul Britton, CEO, TVCC closed the event: “It has been a record breaking year for our international trade services with over 80,000 shipments processed. This has also been a year for reflection, dialogue and preparing for what is ahead. The Business Manifesto for the Thames Valley launched in November has been put together in consultation with policymakers, inward investors and our members and will provide the focus for our work in 2018. We have a global reputation for attracting inward investment and will continue to make the case for the region. Our Thames Valley Business Awards will showcase success in exporting, innovation and our SMEs. Above all we want to be ambitious with energy, drive and no complacency. Business is up for creating change.”