The last word has not yet been spoken on Brexit. As things stand now, the UK will leave the European Union on 31 October 2019. But how will separation work in practice? Belgian companies are preparing for Brexit as best they can, but no one knows what will happen after that date...
What is the current state of play?
On 31 October 2019, at midnight, Europe and the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) are set to go their own way. This is the projected outcome and deadline, unless the situation changes unexpectedly. The impending separation has already been discussed in detail by the EU and UK negotiators so that the process proceeds as smoothly as possible... The negotiations of November 2018 produced a draft withdrawal agreement that provides for a transition period until 30 December 2020 in which EU legislation will continue to apply in the UK so that there is some type of status quo for the business world.
And what if the agreement is not ratified?
This is the cliff-edge scenario, a hard Brexit. In that case, EU legislation will no longer apply in the UK on the morning of 31 October 2019 and only the WTO (World Trade Organisation) rules will still apply. Of course, there is nothing to stop both parties to make trade agreements (with or without a free trade zone and cooperation between customs services), but that will be after October 2019. What we can conclude from this in any case is that a new period of trade will commence, on 31 October 2019 at the earliest and 1 January 2021 at the latest. This will have direct and indirect consequences for many economic players. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has stressed that he wishes to leave the EU with an agreement, but has already rejected the conditions of the previous agreement. The EU is no longer prepared to renegotiate. If, after the summer recess, there is a motion of no confidence by opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, new elections and a referendum cannot be ruled out. These will undoubtedly extend beyond the date of 31 October 2019.
Understanding the full extent of Brexit
Do you export or import products to and from the United Kingdom? Brexit will affect the transport and supply of goods (logistics chains) the most, particularly because of additional customs formalities, other tariff systems, the introduction of quotas and border controls. Do you employ people who work or provide services in the UK or are you planning to set up a business there? Do not underestimate the impact on the circulation of capital, access to public procurement or investment, the protection of intellectual property and all matters relating to competition. Overall, therefore, we can say that Brexit will have onerous, sometimes unexpected and above all... inevitable consequences. In other words, preparing yourself for the best – but also the worst – possible separation scenario is essential.
Proactiveness and the right questions
What should you do first? Obtain information and analyse the risks (and opportunities) for your company. What part do your UK trade relationships play in your business? What are the potential financial consequences (customs, VAT, exchange rate risks, and so on) of Brexit? Which UK rules will apply to your activities or products? What contingency measures can you take to respond to unforeseen circumstances (diversification of the markets, revising agreements, and so on).
Finding the right channels
A number of agencies are getting ready to support companies in the run-up to these decisive deadlines.
- The Federal Public Service Economy (FOD Economie), for example, has developed a Brexit Impact Scan to clearly determine whether your company will be affected by Brexit or not.
- If you have any questions about customs, excise duties or VAT, we recommend you first read carefully the letter the tax authorities sent to all companies that will be affected by Brexit. The Federal Public Service Finance is always ready to help you, especially if you export goods to the UK, because you need an EORI number, among other things.
- You can also contact the regional authorities responsible for foreign trade: AWEX in Wallonia, Hub in Brussels and FIT in Flanders.
- At EU level, the Commission has published 77 industry fact sheets to help economic players prepare for Brexit.
Trade Development saves you from teething problems in foreign markets
Rob Van Veen, Trade Development Manager at BNP Paribas Fortis, explains how his department can help you tap foreign markets.
Why a separate department?
Rob Van Veen (RV): "Trade Development was set up as part of the Global Trade Solutions Competence Centre in Brussels in response to a two-fold customer requirement. Firstly, medium-sized enterprises tend to assign their business development to staff who are also responsible for a number of other tasks. As a result, it is difficult for them to find time to consider a foreign growth strategy or to prospect for new customers. Secondly, they don't have local contacts or the requisite knowledge or resources to capitalise fully on an opportunity abroad."
So they need something that goes beyond standard banking services?
RV: "Indeed. A bank can provide businesses with practical assistance with their plans for expansion by opening accounts, providing guarantees and offering payment services, but customers need much more than that. They want their bank to consider their strategy and help them establish a prudent and efficient market approach. And that's where we come in."
What precisely is the service you provide?
RV: "In a nutshell, we put customers in contact with people who can assist them with their foreign projects from beginning to end. Initially we focus on listening to their requirements, sounding out their plans and examining the various possibilities.
Then we provide the customer with a report containing all the relevant information – including a clear estimate of the costs and projected results – to enable them to make a considered decision that fits with their strategy. This makes the decision-making considerably easier and quicker, because the company doesn't have to do research or establish contacts itself. And if the project gets the go-ahead, we provide the logistical support necessary for bringing it to fruition."
How does that work in practice?
RV: "It all depends on the project, the country concerned and the customer's actual requirements. Our own staff or co-workers in foreign branches provide a number of services. As a matter of fact, Trade Development services were recently set up in France and Italy to that effect. We can also call upon partners on the spot for matters that require specific local knowledge. This might be market research, recruitment, administration, audit services and legal, tax or operating advice.
This approach gives the company the assurance that they have the right people on board. We work with a network of permanent, reliable contacts who are assessed by the customer after every project. In this way we are able to guarantee quality service. However, the main advantage is that our contacts are very familiar with the local rules and practices and are used to working within that framework."
Does that mean you focus mainly on ‘exotic’ countries?
RV: "Absolutely not. Many customers call on us to tap into European markets, often the neighbouring countries. For instance, we are currently working on many cases that involve Germany, which is an attractive growth market for a variety of sectors, but it is very difficult for 'outsiders' to get established there.
And sometimes a company will initially look too far afield. Management may have ascertained an opening in their market coverage or heard from another company in the sector that market X or Y is 'hot', so they want to enter that market as quickly as possible. But they need to consider whether the market concerned does in fact fit with their business strategy. And they also need to be aware of the market's specific characteristics and rules – prime examples are the unique market circumstances in India and China or the high import duties in Brazil."
Is there a fee for the service?
RV: "Yes, customers do pay a fee, but this should be viewed primarily as an investment. And a very attractive investment at that, because it can save a lot of time and a number of other costs that in many cases prove to be pointless.
We need only think of a scenario where a business person prospecting somewhere in South America spends thousands of euros on their flight and accommodation and then has to set about working in an unknown environment, often without the requisite contacts or a clear idea of the potential costs and income. There is every chance that the trip will turn out to be a damp squib.
We can't, of course, give our customers a guarantee of success, but we do ensure that everything is in place to give their projects the best chance of succeeding. And there is also the advantage of continuity: once we have worked with a company and know its strategy, we can act very quickly if it comes to any future projects or projects involving other markets."
Essentiel: London calling
This summer, the Antwerp fashion house had a unique opportunity to set up in London. The challenge: setting up a British unit in just a couple of days.
Essentiel's colourful, jazzy creations have been part of the Belgian fashion landscape for many years. The brand is also becoming popular in other countries, including France, Spain and the Netherlands and, more recently, in Great Britain, thanks to the intervention of Trade Development. An interview with Erik Vercauteren, CFO at Essentiel.
Why did you decide to enter the UK market?
Erik Vercauteren (EV): "Some years ago we had a presence in the UK through an agent, but we eventually decided to withdraw from that arrangement due to falling sales figures. But a return to the market was never ruled out entirely, provided that the circumstances were right.
Rather paradoxically, our new UK venture began in France. Last year, we opened an outlet in the 1st arrondissement in Paris, in the heart of the fashion district. As our result, our brand had a high profile with fashion lovers and professionals, and also with importers and department store buyers. Harvey Nichols soon approached us with an offer to sell Essentiel through their shop in London."
And that was an opportunity not to be missed?
EV: "Indeed. Harvey Nichols is a multi-brand concern that works on concession: in exchange for a certain percentage of the revenue, we have a counter in their store staffed by our own people and with our own reporting, visual merchandising, etc. That means we can display our wares in Knightsbridge, a prestigious location with a high footfall. To get in on this attractive system, we just had to set up a unit in the UK. We didn't have much time to reflect, because counters at Harvey Nichols are snapped up."
How did you get in contact with Trade Development?
EV: "That was on the advice of our relationship manager at BNP Paribas Fortis. We had already had a close relationship with the bank for many years and we were in regular contact to discuss our strategic plans, potential financing or other matters. The proposal from Harvey Nichols came up at one of our discussions and our relationship manager immediately suggested getting Trade Development involved."
How did it work in practice?
EV: "Our main concern was to set up an entity in the UK as soon as possible, and to opt for the most appropriate legal form. Trade Development's role in that was primarily that of 'matchmaker', putting us in contact with a local partner, Frenger International. They advised us to set up a limited company with start-up capital of 10,000 pounds; this is rather more than the legally-required minimum, a clear signal that Essentiel was serious about entering the UK market. We agreed to this proposal. Once the decision had been made, things moved very quickly: the limited company was set up in a matter of days.
Although contact is now direct with Frenger – which is also responsible for VAT, accounting and tax matters – Trade Development is on stand-by to assist if problems should arise."
What was the advantage for you?
EV: "First and foremost, we saved time in finding a partner, opting for a legal form and getting things off the ground. We also had easy access to local contacts with a very good knowledge of local rules and regulations. Our experience on other markets had taught us that this local knowledge is essential, both with payment norms and business practice."
Is Essentiel doing well in London?
EV: "Our counter has been operating since mid-August and the initial results are very promising. If that continues, there is certainly the possibility of working with Harvey Nichols in other UK stores."
Ideal Felt: potential in Poland
With a concrete strategy, specific offering and – more importantly – the right contacts, the Belgian felt manufacturer established a foothold in Poland.
Ideal Felt is a Belgian supplier of technical felt for a variety of industrial uses and coloured felt for decorative purposes. They also manufacture made-to-measure filter sleeves, heat-resisting seals and protective components for industrial use.
The company operates mainly in the Benelux countries, France and Germany at present. Since Ideal Felt has virtually exhausted the potential for growth in these markets, it is now looking further east. We asked Henry Symons, Director of Ideal Felt, how Trade Development helped him approach the Polish market.
Why exactly did you choose Poland?
Henry Symons (HS): "The decision was dictated by our market approach: Ideal Felt is a niche operator with a highly specialised product range. We work with an extensive portfolio of customers in various industrial sectors and they place small orders from time to time.
As the name implies, a niche market is limited: in recent years we thoroughly tapped the market in the Benelux countries, Germany and France and don't expect to turn up many more potential customers. We can therefore assume that companies that want to work with us in those countries are already doing so, or at least know us. As a result, it will be difficult to achieve any further significant growth in those countries. We therefore sought out new outlets, preferably in countries with a lot of heavy industry. Poland came out on top of our list."
Did you go prospecting yourselves?
HS: "We did go to Poland a while ago, but returned empty-handed. That was primarily due to the fact that it was extremely difficult to find the right contacts. Because of our specific range, we rarely – if ever – negotiate with a central buying department, but rather with technicians and specialists on the shop floor. And in many cases those persons were not familiar to the company's general contact, let alone at reception. And when we did get to meet someone, we still had to contend with the language barrier."
So what prompted you to try again?
HS: "During a meeting with our relationship manager at BNP Paribas Fortis, our plans to expand came up again. He immediately advised us to contact the Trade Development department. They in turn put us in contact with Valians International, their partner for Eastern Europe."
Can you describe the actual process involved?
HS: "We worked in stages. Initially we provided the people at Valians with comprehensive information on our company, activities and products. This gave them a better idea of the market, so that they could focus on seeking appropriate prospects and contacts.
Together we then clearly demarcated the target market. It couldn't be too small, otherwise the profitability of potential business with Poland would be compromised, due to the transport costs. We were therefore looking for companies in potentially interesting sectors that could order significant volumes.
We drew up a very specific questionnaire to help Valians identify suitable companies. Based on that, and taking account of the profile of our 'ideal customer', Valians then drew up a shortlist. We whittled the list down further, and eventually we had ten or so 'must see' companies plus a few other 'possibles'."
And then you visited those?
HS: "That's right. There were three of us: our contact at Valians, who acted as interpreter when necessary, our commercial representative for the Benelux countries and myself. We were able to make seven site visits during our week in the country. Because we had selected various sectors and industry in Poland is very geographically spread, too much time was wasted in travelling to manage any more.
Nevertheless, the difference from our first visit was enormous. The major advantage was that the prospects were expecting us, so they took the time required to talk to us and show us their company. One of the company tours actually gave us some ideas for a new application for our products. And this time language was not a problem."
Can you already gauge the results?
HS: "Most of the companies we visited have asked us to provide test material and draw up a tender. It was drafted in Polish, again thanks to intervention by Valians, which is also responsible for the follow-up. So far that has generated one order, and other negotiations are under way.
Establishing a lasting business relationship is not easy, especially for a Belgian niche operator in Poland. Our potential customers had for years been working with cheaper local suppliers, most of them offering lesser quality products. So it will take a long time to convince them that our products are well worth the extra cost.
I remain optimistic, especially since our contact at Valians is now totally familiar with Ideal Felt's offering and can recommend it to other potential customers in Poland. Working together was also a very informative experience that provided us with a wealth of knowledge that will be useful in investigating other markets. As business people, we are constantly on the look-out for sustainable, profitable growth."
Why retail needs to invest in grocers
In the UK, Tesco has got its hands on a chain of small independent retailers. The small shop is being reincarnated due to more spread-out consumer behaviour.
The convenience store market has attracted greater attention since the announcement of the acquisition by Tesco of the Booker chain in the United Kingdom for EUR 4.4 billion. This transaction should enable Tesco, which is beset by strong competition from other supermarkets, to diversify and become a big player in distribution to both private individuals and businesses.
Announced at the end of January, this acquisition should take effect in late 2017 or early 2018. The reasons that lead Tesco to Booker are clear: the group already represents 30% of the British grocery market and this share could increase by 2 or 3% once the acquisition has been validated by the shareholders.
This represents a shock wave in the UK. 80% of the 41,000 convenience stores in the UK were previously fully independent, or part of purchasing groups such as Costcutter and Nisa. These groups continue to play a big role on the local market, holding a substantial share of the food market: EUR 44 billion out of total sales of EUR 210 billion.
The Saturday food shop is a thing of the past
According to IGD, the market share of the small grocery should see growth of 11.7% in the next five years. This growth may be surprising, but it can be explained by a change in British habits. People are moving away from doing the weekly shopping in big supermarkets and instead go shopping more often when they need to, behaviour known as 'top-up shopping.'
"Our revenues have always been satisfactory, but there is now a lot more competition on our market and our margins have really reduced over the last few years," explains Vijay Patel to the Guardian, an independent retailer since the 80s.
He confirms the trend for the small shop:
"I used to know 98% of my customers by name. Now I would say I know about 50%. I see new faces all the time, but customers are also less loyal."
Joining with Tesco should give Booker breathing room. Around a decade after Aldi and Lidl set up shop on the English market, competition has grown fierce for small retailers.