Russell Luckock, chairman of Birmingham-based pressworks company AE Harris, discusses the opportunities for West Midland firms looking for business opportunities in the Caribbean.
Representatives of the West Midland business community leave for the Caribbean on June 2 - but the trip is no holiday. The businessmen are both sourcing new opportunities that might be available in the region and further cementing existing relationships.
They will visit Barbados, Trinidad and Jamaica, travelling under the auspices of the UK Industrial and Investment Board in conjunction with the Black Country Chamber of Commerce, based in Walsall.
In addition to the two leaders, there will be ten participating companies covering a spread of interests. Three will be seeking contacts in the field of training, three involved with hair products, and the rest with market development in various fields.
I am sure that they will enjoy varying degrees of success, but to my mind, it is extremely sad that no company from the manufacturing world will be on the trip.
Birmingham, it is said, is a city of a thousand trades and hundreds of companies produce a huge range of goods, yet not one factory is represented in this marketing visit. I discussed this fact with Hadford Howell, the senior commercial officer at the British High Commission in Bridgetown, Barbados, last week during a fact-finding visit in connection with opportunities for developing a gap in the market.
He would welcome many more British companies to the area, as due to the present state of world currencies, now is an ideal time to visit and secure business. The exchange rates are very much in our favour, and West Indian companies have great regard for the high quality of British made products.
Barbados is currently a very busy country with the construction industry up 2.7 per cent on last year.
There is wide range of flats and houses being developed for the holiday/retirement market, which all require fitting out to a high standard. Growth in the island's economy is about four per cent and with a new government in power, dedicated to continued development, the outlook is good - a point reinforced by the number of Land Rover Freelanders being driven around.
So why are there no British manufacturing companies going out to wave the flag? I put this question to veteran exporter Athleston Tony Sealey, the business leader of the delegation in question, and with long personal experience of the market.
He is equally baffled, and agreed that companies have missed a trick. Yes, the Caribbean countries are relatively small, but can be very lucrative.
Bajan people have a close affinity with the UK, for many families have close relatives in this country, particularly the West Midlands. Sensibly, they drive on the left hand side of the road, play cricket and speak English. An ideal situation for exporters with a product to sell.
The same question was put to Jonathan Webber, head of international trade at the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce. Again, he agreed that whilst it was far too late to sign up for this trip, some eight to ten delegations were sent abroad every year in conjunction with UK Trade and Investment.
In certain circumstances, grant aid is available for some of the trips but sadly nowhere near as much as there used to be.
Budgets have been cut back substantially and it is a pity because exporters have been the lifeblood of this country.
However, Mr Webber made the point that it cost nothing to talk to the chamber, and he personally had taken manufacturers to some of the more remote parts of the world, often with some success.
Even for the most basic of component suppliers, there are a wide range of opportunities. For instance, Barbados is located 120 miles out into the Atlantic and it has, because of the constant wind carrying salt spray, a demand for a range of stainless steel products.
The Department of Trade and Industry runs an Overseas Market Introductory Service. This, which has to be paid for, researches markets for exporters.
Generally countries are linked together for reasons of convenience. In the Caribbean, Barbados, Cuba, Jamaica and Trinidad form a group of countries with senior commercial officers working together for and on behalf of UK exporters.
By way of illustration, Cuba might be thought to be somewhat unrewarding. Not so, a change of leadership has brought Raul Castro, brother of Fidel, to the fore. He is starting to open the doors to imports from overseas. For the first time, computers are being sold in shops.
The particular market research that I was involved in, if it comes to fruition, will result in several million pounds changing hands.
The Caribbean is a hot tourist spot, getting more popular every year, with over 20 heavy jets a week flying into Barbados alone. Trinidad is an oil producing and steel manufacturing nation. They have money to spend, and again, British product is held in high esteem.
However, they see few British companies down there touting for business. There, tourism is mainly confined to the neighbouring island of Tobago, but it is thriving. Jamaica, another popular holiday location, has been a good customer to this country in the past, and could be equally as lucrative today.
Markets have to be worked for, and contacts maintained, it is not easy work. However, orders can be secured, and for Midland manufacturers, this is absolutely vital. Orders gained can offset all that work that has been transferred overseas.
Finally, I turned to John Lamb, head of public relations at the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, for his comments.
He insisted now was an ideal time to check out overseas markets. So much is in Britain's favour. Helpful currency exchange rates, a reputation for high quality justly earned and a need to attract more business, particularly to the West Midlands, was absolutely vital.
Manufacturers have missed out on the particular excursion under review. However, Chambers of Commerce are always willing to help. No matter how small the business, export orders can be very rewarding.