Small companies left trailing by global rivals in race to export

Britain is among the worst-performing economies in Europe when it comes to encouraging small businesses to export, a report has warned.

It is in the bottom five European economies in terms of small and medium-sized companies’ share of exports, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research.

Less than 20 per cent of small companies have international sales, compared with 40 per cent of large businesses. There is little sign of a willingness among smaller businesses to tackle the UK’s weak international trade performance, with only 5 per cent saying that they have plans to export in the next five years, the study found.

The research, based on official data and a survey of more than 1,000 directors in small businesses, suggests that Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has done nothing to improve confidence. A third of respondents said that Brexit would make no difference to their ability to export, but 42 per cent felt it would hinder their ability to sell overseas.

Between 2008 and 2015, UK exports grew from an annual $473 billion to $486 billion, a rise of about 3 per cent. Had they grown in line with the global average they would have been $564 billion in 2014, according to the report. With the value of overall exports stagnating, the UK is almost certain to fall considerably short of the target set by government in 2012 to raise the level of exports to £1 trillion by 2020.

Jonathan Quin, chief executive and co-founder of World First, which commissioned the research, said: “So much more needs to be done for the UK to fulfil its potential as a trading nation. With only 5 per cent of UK small and medium-sized businesses considering exporting over the next few years, it is clear that [companies] need much more in terms of inspiration and support to seize the growth opportunities that exist in global markets.”

He said the Brexit vote “reinforces the importance of taking a global view and exploring new markets”.

World First is running an event in London on October 11, which it said would provide small companies with assistance to help them to sell overseas.