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Doing business with Great Britain

Category: Business in Great Britain

The United Kingdom and the Baltic States, Ukraine, Russia and other countries of the FSU are close enough, and have enough experience of each other, to delude their business executives into thinking too readily that they also understand each other better than they do. That trap is all the more easily laid because they usually get along rather well, and laugh at pretty much the same sorts of thing (not always: Russians love their anekdoti; the British cannot match them). This guide is intended to help those approaching the UK market, or in the early stages of establishing a position in the UK, and my introduction is intended to encourage readers to look more closely at the expert notes which follow. There are plenty of publications advising foreigners how to do business in the countries formerly bound together in the USSR, but as far as I know precious few designed to help those looking the other way. Let me start with something banal, but often forgotten. If you look at a British map it is, not surprisingly, centred on the UK. The UK is however a small and elongated shape on a map produced in Moscow, somewhere way over to the top left. The moral is that our businesses do not think of each other as often as they do about their nearer neighbours. And in the British case, there is the further pull of countries around the world with which we have had a long and often intimate relationship. Newcomers to our cities are sometimes surprised by the mix of peoples in our streets. British business has paid far more attention to India, China, Australia or the United States, and is far more involved with its partners in the European Union, than it is with countries further to the East.

This is changing, but it means that those coming to Britain are coming to a highly competitive market. There are two principal lessons to be drawn from that: first, get the pitch right; and second, choose your point of entry into the market well. If you do, there is profit to be made, not just in Great Britain, but by using a presence in the UK to operate on the wider stage.

Each case is different, and it is well worthwhile talking through your best selling points with qualified advisers. Large-scale conferences and so on can be useful in feeling out the ground, but it is a common observation that the level of foreign attendance is both larger in number and more senior in rank than the British. Those making their pitch at such meetings also commonly make the mistake of reading from notes of far too great a length, containing more statistics than the audience can possibly absorb.

Presenters sometimes include too many proposals for cooperation, several clearly without any substance and just included to make an impression. Doing advance research, and focusing on one or two real prospects, is the right way to proceed. Before asking to see the top representatives of your target, prepare the ground with their juniors, and particularly their local representative, if they have one in your country. British firms are often less dominated by their leaders than those which have evolved from a Soviet tradition. And the higher you go up the corporate tree, the more likely it will be that the person you meet will have formed a general rather than a fully developed impression of your country, drawn as likely as not from the mass media. That is less true than it was a few years ago, but it is always better to take into account that you will know far more about what you can offer than the person to whom you are talking — and far less of course of what it may be that your potential colleague can do for you, and with you.

It is also important to bear in mind that our negotiating styles are different. The British do not typically go for the maximum, and stick with it to the last minute, and down to the last detail, which negotiators from a formerly Soviet background often do. This can be exasperating from the British point of view, and it is a common British finding that working with such partners can take up a disproportionate amount of management time. That can be all the more so if what has been understood by the British to have been a final agreement, set out in a clear contract, is seen by the other side as merely the opening position for the next negotiation. There are, of course, many sectors where there has been a growing relationship, particularly in recent years. Shipping, energy, metallurgy and some retail products are all examples. Developing further cooperation in areas with a previous history will perhaps be easier than in some other sectors. There is no reason, however, why the well-prepared pioneer should not succeed, but the stress has to be on being well prepared.

Offering all the elements of the Mendeleev Table will not achieve anything. Selling through a process exploiting one of them might. Be prepared also to tackle questions about reputation. Possible British partners need to know the full background to your property rights, just as you need to know as much as possible about them. The better your CEO’s reputation, the more seriously his or her interest in working with British partners or in the UK market will be taken. If your purpose is to attract UK investment into your country, again that will very much apply.

You can get information and help from Chambers of Commerce, from your country’s Embassy and as appropriate from the British Embassies too. The internet is a valuable tool. The Russo-British Chamber of Commerce is active, as are other bilateral Chambers. The Confederation of British Industry has regular meetings with its Russian counterparts, and has developed relations with other countries too. The more detailed notes which follow provide further guidance as to where for instance the City of London can help. The PBN Company itself exists to work for you.

No booklet like this can give you all the answers. Each case is different. Each requires its own solutions and strategies. But the information in this guide will set you firmly on the right course.

SIR ANDREW WOOD, formerly British Ambassador to the Russian Federation, Member of The PBN Company Board of Directors

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