How new exporters are key to a multi-billion pound growth bonanza

7,708 businesses in NI export goods worth £9.3 billion a year, supporting 129,000 jobs. But same number again of SMEs still don’t look outwards

Cargo Airplane 7,708 businesses in Northern Ireland currently export goods worth £9.3 billion a year, supporting 129,000 jobs (pluem05/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

If small and medium sized businesses in the north with no current international trading footprint chose to start exporting, it could unlock a multi-billion pound growth spurt for the region, a new report suggests.

Currently, some 7,708 businesses in Northern Ireland export goods worth a total of £9.3 billion a year, supporting 129,000 jobs in the process.

But an Exporting Excellence report produced by hub airport Heathrow and endorsed by the NI Chamber of Commerce estimates that there are 7,700 more SMEs with the potential to export goods, yet don’t bother.

And they are now being urged to look outwards and consider exporting, tapping into a potential rich vein in jobs creation and economic added-value.

As part of its campaign, Heathrow - which helps UK businesses connect to 239 destinations in 89 countries - worked with the NI Chamber, which represents 1,000 businesses, and spoke to a range of different companies about their priorities for international trade and obstacles to greater growth.

Exporters highlighted a series of challenges to boosting international trade including sustainability, a skills gap, access to finance and the need for the Government to provide a clearer and overarching strategic plan for export growth

Heathrow’s chief commercial officer Ross Baker said: “Exporters’ insights have informed our campaign, which we hope will kick start a conversation across the UK about how government, industry and Heathrow can work together to grow international trade and encourage more and more businesses to export.”

Michael Brereton was arrested after landing at Heathrow Airport (Steve Parsons/PA)
Heathrow Airport says it helps UK businesses connect to 239 destinations in 89 countries

Suzanne Wylie, chief executive at the NI Chamber, added: “We were pleased to be able to facilitate a business discussion on these issues as growing our export base is key to Northern Ireland’s economic growth.

“If our businesses are to realise their global potential, it is imperative we create the best possible conditions for them to thrive.

“That means reducing barriers to export in terms of costs and processes, as well as investing in our infrastructure, dealing with skills gaps and helping businesses to achieve their net zero ambitions.

“All of this is crucial to making Northern Ireland the sustainable and globally competitive region we know it has the potential to be.”

The Exporting Excellence report makes a number of recommendations to Government, including the urgent delivery of its Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) delivery plan to ensure domestic production of the low carbon fuel which will be vital in ensuring the industry reaches its net zero goals.

And it also recommends reducing paperwork and moving to a ‘digital first’ system for customs declarations and launching a new UK-wide campaign to encourage more young people to consider a career in logistics or exporting.

Suzanne Wylie has taken up her new role as chief executive of NI Chamber of Commerce. Picture Elaine Hill
Suzanne Wylie, chief executive of NI Chamber of Commerce. Picture Elaine Hill Suzanne Wylie, chief executive of NI Chamber of Commerce. Picture Elaine Hill

Exporting involves extensive paperwork, and while exporters are constantly innovating, the process has not kept pace.

Last year, exporters submitted 95.1 million customs declarations potentially spanning up to 12 pages each. If stacked, this pile of paperwork would be six times higher than a plane’s standard cruising altitude.

The report says adopting a digital-first system under the UK’s Border Target Operating Model could save businesses £190 million in importing costs alone.

The report adds: “There is a consensus that the UK needs to go further and faster. It requires a national campaign to highlight the potential a career in exports could offer job seekers and people leaving education.”