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International trade – now is the time to up our game

International trade – now is the time to up our game

Last week Scottish Chambers of Commerce secured an agreement with the Scottish Government to expand the work of Chambers in international trade.  Also last week, I spent some time with colleagues from the British Chambers, with the extent to which we can make a contribution to overseas trade a constant theme.

There are Chambers of Commerce in thousands of cities across the world, all representing the business interests of their local communities. The Chamber brand opens doors in some of the most unlikely places, for example we welcomed a senior team from Beirut and North Lebanon Chamber - who spent a week getting to know how we went about our business here in Glasgow. 

Brexit has reminded us vigorously that we have an opportunity to use the international Chambers network so much more than we currently do.

Don’t misunderstand me, many Scottish and British Chambers are already very active. Most of us are involved daily in the export supply chain, helping to supply the trade documentation that members need to get their goods through national customs barriers.

In addition, we help train members’ staff in the logistics of exporting, work closely with Scottish Development International in guiding members to key markets and receive delegations from overseas.

Glasgow Chamber has seen a near 25% growth in our work on trade documentation since the Brexit vote, and we have been getting solid support from Clydesdale Bank to grow our work spreading the experience of successful exporter members like the Scottish Leather Group.

Lately though we have recognised that so much more could be done to exploit our Chamber to Chamber, business to business connections. The Scottish Government’s Trade and Investment strategy pointed out that just 70 companies account for around half of our current exports, and we are overly dependent on key sectors like whisky or oil and gas.  So there’s a national economic issue to tackle. 

So we have been developing and signing agreements with like-minded Chambers overseas to make it easier to support member exchanges into each other’s markets. We have signed an agreement with Manhattan Chamber of Commerce and our exchange work has already started, when we took eight companies to New York last month.

We have signed a similar agreement with the British Chambers of Commerce in Milan, and will be doing exchange work there in the spring next year.

Aberdeen has signed Memoranda of Understanding with Chambers in countries as diverse as Colombia and Ghana, reflecting the importance of the oil and gas sector on their patch.

What the Scottish Government’s support will do is help us speed up our plans, sign many more such agreements, and so facilitate contacts with trading partners in cities and regions that suit our local members. We have a collection of markets we want to explore in Europe, America and the Middle and Far East which reflect what our members say are important markets, and where Glasgow is well connected by our flight networks.

Of course you might ask how successful can we be until Brexit is complete and new agreements reached both with the EU and with important markets elsewhere in the world.

That’s why we are keeping very close to our colleagues in the British Chambers. Adam Marshall has just been appointed as the new Director General, and we know Adam has great experience in reaching into Whitehall with the views of our members. We will be helping Adam in that task as much as we can.

That said, we still believe that we will be much better placed to succeed in our overseas trade if more and more of our members are already well connected, so we will not be waiting until we know what the final deals look like. The work has to step up now.