Reaching across the world

UKT&I aims to help UK water businesses succeed overseas

If you want to insulate your company from the domestic water industry's boom-and-bust spending cycle, foreign markets offer an alternative - but who is spending, what are the risks and will there be a demand for your wares?

The job of answering these questions falls to the Worldwide Water Unit (WWU) of UK Trade & Investment (UKT&I). Formerly Trade Partners UK, UKT&I is a Department of the Trade and Industry (DTI) body, which aims to combine British water industry expertise with the international reach, connections and resources of government to help UK businesses succeed overseas.

The water industry covers a broad range of disciplines - operation and maintenance, legal services, consultancy, manufacturing and supply, concession operators, civils and process contractors - all of which UKT&I is designed to help. The organisation offers assistance to companies exporting for the first time, as well existing exporters seeking new markets. Put simply, the WWU's job is to "improve the competitive nature of the UK water industry by helping it win business and investment overseas", according to the unit's head Richard Hardiman.

This is achieved by integrating companies into the local-to-global support network UKT&I operates, which extends from the DTI's regional Business Links offices in the UK to commercial officers attached to British embassies across the globe. The organisation offers entry-level market information via its website. Potential exporters can also commission reports on target markets, these can be either general or tailored to a comp any's requirements.

With a tailored report the commercial officer in the target country will look at the exporter's products or services, assess their overseas potential and provide information on likely buyers or useful contacts. A charge is levied for this service. Business Links offices also offer health checks to assess a company's readiness to enter overseas markets.

Providing market information is a key element of the WWU's remit. To succeed, the unit has to supply the sort of intelligence companies would find too costly or difficult to obtain by themselves.

UKT&I's commercial officers are active throughout the world, visiting key decision makers, finding out what they want from the UK in terms of products, services or expertise, and reporting business opportunities and the best way to exploit them. To ensure commercial officers provide the information their clients need, the water unit operates in partnership with the Water Sector Advisory Group (WSAG), which offers an industry perspective. Chaired by Thames' group chief executive Bill Alexander, WSAG has representatives from Thames Water (operator), Halcrow (consultant), Masons (legal services), Hydro International (medium-sized manufacturers), Wallingford (software), Royal Bank of Scotland (finance) and Cranfield University (academia). The WSAG sets priorities and strategies for the WWU in terms of the information and markets to be investigated.

Another industry voice is provided by the export promoter, a senior industry representative seconded to the WWU on a part-time basis for a two-year period. The post is currently held by Ed Wilson, chief executive officer of Vexamus Water. According to Richard Hardiman, the post of export officer brings to the water unit a depth of experience the civil service would be unable to match.

For their part, as well as vital information, the WWU's civil servants are able to bring to the table levels of access to markets that would be difficult for a commercial organisation alone to obtain. Provision of water services nearly always has a significant level of governmental involvement "and governments", Hardiman observes, "will often like to talk to other governments".

As a result, the unit is in dialogue with many administrations seeking to reform water services and off-set the costs by introducing private sector involvement. This has been achieved successfully in the UK and other countries are keen to learn from the British government's experience. The benefits of involvement at the strategic level are twofold. The water unit is able pass on to industry key contacts, detail needs and forthcoming programmes.

Equally importantly, such dialogue allows the organisation to showcase British expertise and try to influence programmes to the benefit of Britain's water sector. Hardiman says: "It is not just a case of going in waving the Union Jack and saying this is the way to do it. It is a case of we have a lot of expertise, what do you want to know about?"

An important part of this work is inward and outward trade missions. Itinerarys vary but with the former, UK visits by foreign delegations may include meetings with the Department Environment of Food Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and Ofwat, as well as visits to reference sites. With the latter companies, government water experts and sometimes ministers visit target markets.

The WWU's criteria for judging priority markets are straightforward. The country must have:

  • a need to improve water services,
  • the willingness to act,
  • the willingness to involve the private sector,
  • the ability to pay.

The countries currently meeting these criteria are China, Poland, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania. EU accession countries particularly Poland, Bulgaria and Romania are seen as highly lucrative markets. Existing water infrastructure, which is having difficulty meeting current demands, will eventually have to comply with EU standards. Upgrading is essential and funding via the EU and World Bank will be forthcoming



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