The man who has helped guide export growth in the West Midlands for more than two decades is retiring. Graeme Brown talks to him about the changes he has seen

When Doug Mahoney began working in the West Midlands in 1990 the country was heading for recession and engineering firms were the major exporters in markets dominated by the US and Europe.

Since then some things haven't changed - but much has.

Mr Mahoney will stand down from his role as international trade director at UK Trade & Investment in the West Midlands later this month, handing over the reins at a time when the region is fighting to cash in on huge growth in parts of the Far East, South East Asia and South America.

While those areas have taken up much of his time in recent years, Mr Mahoney admitted that for the moment it is old friends - and established industries - that are shoring up the region's export figures.

"It is more what hasn't changed," he said. "When I came to the West Midlands the majority of the region's goods exporters were in engineering, automotive and metal-related industries.

"That accounts for about 60 per cent of West Midlands exports and 20 years on it still does.

"The other thing that is the same is around 60 per cent of exports at that time went to the European Union and North America and that is still the case today.

"You would think nothing has changed - but in actual fact our position has changed dramatically.

"When I first arrived there was a lot of larger traditional companies exporting and a lot of opportunistic exports like metal-bashers that would only export if the pound was right.

"What has happened since then is we have been through a number of recessions and we have seen a slimming down of West Midlands industry and what we have now is a lean, mean, efficient, cutting edge manufacturing base exporting on a more strategic basis and looking at high-end products and niche markets.

"A lot of larger exporters have gone and the small and medium-sized businesses have stepped up.

"The other thing is there has been growth from new industries like digital, new media and creative.

"Rather than exporting widgets or parts we are exporting engineering solutions."

Mr Mahoney will be handing over to Paul Noon, director of trade for Australia and New Zealand at UK Trade & Investment, when he retires from the West Midlands role at the end of the month.

Originally from Liverpool, Mr Mahoney joined the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (then the Board of Trade) in 1969 and has worked on international trade policy since.

In 1986 he transferred to the West Midlands, working on industrial development, and in 1990 moved to head a central secretariat in DTI West Midlands.

In 2000 he took up his present post and was awarded an OBE in the 2011 Queen's Birthday Honours list in recognition of his work generating international trade and investment in the region.

Looking forward, he said that if the region's reliance on the eurozone and US fails to change in the next two decades then something has gone wrong.

He said: "If it doesn't change in the next 20 years then the people who have been in charge of promoting exports haven't been doing their jobs.

"Europe is always going to be the market for first-time exporters to cut their teeth.

"It is not a bad place to start exporting but in terms of real volume where you need to be in terms of market share is the Far East and other high-growth markets. It is not just China, but places like Indonesia, Vietnam, Columbia and Mexico."

Mr Mahoney, who will split time between the West Midlands and Scotland, and hopes to continue helping firms in the region to export on a part-time basis, said looking back one of the great frustrations has been getting the message through to SMEs about their potential to export.

He said there were firms, particularly in the engineering sector, with huge potential to become a global success but are unwilling to make the leap.

He said: "In certain sectors we have developed quickly and well - a lot of the digital work is world-leading, including the games technology.

"The biggest disappointment is I still think we should have more small and medium-sized companies from the West Midlands exporting.

"In some of the general engineering sectors we could do more. There are businesses which supply in the UK who don't understand how successful they could be around the world."