SME exporters: Approaching international trade in unprecedented times

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An experienced entrepreneur, Geoffrey de Mowbray is the CEO of UK-based Dints International, which he founded in 2007, and which provides solutions to supply chain problems for mining and infrastructure companies. He’s also the co-Chairman of the British Exporters Association (BExA), responsible for SME and micro exporters.

In this interview he describes his somewhat unconventional journey to a career in international trade, what young trade and export financiers can do to support the growth of trade and make a positive difference, and how – given the current tough business environment brought on by Covid-19 – his company has had to innovate to keep operating.   

Q: Tell us more about your company Dints International?

de Mowbray: It’s a trading business that is focused on the mining, construction and heavy industry spaces, primarily in Africa, South America and, more recently, Asia. We buy and sell products, we enable the financing in the transaction, and we also manage the logistics.

We love doing business internationally and we get excited about going to tricky places. In essence, we go out, win business and sign contracts, thereby enabling companies to sell through us. We’re seeking to be the conduit for companies who manufacture but are not very good at taking their products abroad, as well as providing competition for the established players in our target markets.

Since we started out we have worked in 20 African countries, and until last year we were almost primarily Africa-focused. Now half of our business comes from South America – mostly Chile and Peru – and we recently secured our first Asian client. Our biggest countries at the moment by business revenue are Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Suriname, Guyana, Ghana, Chile and Peru.

Q. What are some of the key issues that you are facing as an SME exporter in the current pandemic?

de Mowbray: Logistics has been a challenge for us, particularly air freight. With reduced passenger flights, cargo is at a premium – both in terms of space and cost. Equally, for some of our clients which are gold mines, the price of gold is high but they are struggling to get to the refineries.

Meanwhile, credit markets are contracting, which is making it harder to get credit insurance on transactions and making due diligence for financing even more onerous.

Some of our clients have halted their production, which gave us an initial drop in revenue, but we quickly pivoted the business to supply customers with urgent medical supplies – this has helped bolster our revenue and, interestingly, also given us an inroad with some customers we were finding it challenging to engage with.

The restriction on travel means there is less facetime with clients. We had previously thought that this was vital, but now we are managing in a new way and it does make us wonder how much we could reduce our travel in ‘normal’ times. Nothing will replace facetime, but perhaps it’s not needed as frequently as we thought it was.

Ultimately, we are taking this time to thoroughly replan our business, something we haven’t had time for before. My belief is that this crisis will emphasise how things can be done better and act as a catalyst to get there. Just look at digitised trade documentation, it has been talked about for years, and now it is a necessity to keep things moving.

Q: How did you get into doing what you do today, and setting up the company?

de Mowbray: I didn’t go to university – I had lost my way a little, shall we say. So, instead – about 20 years ago now – I spent some time with my parents, who were then living in West Africa. While I was there, it became apparent to me very quickly that there was a big disparity of wealth in the region, and, at the same time, many things needed doing, but nothing was really being done. And so I started on the technology side by selling used computers to schools because the students weren’t able to get used computers at a fair price. I employed the students to fix up the computers and then install the satellite internet, because they didn’t have internet.

But there was a kind of shelf life to that line of business – there are only a certain amount of schools you can sell things to. And I also saw that there was so much that needed to be built – mostly in Cameroon. So I thought about how to tap into that. Admittedly, I haven’t quite found the solution for this yet, but the hypothesis was how to tap into business to redistribute wealth and use trade, instead of aid, to drive development. My mum worked for the United Nations, and they were involved in all of this development work, but it was inefficient – especially from a cost perspective – and there was red tape at every step. Back in those days, it was the Millennium Development Goals, now it’s the Sustainable Development Goals.

While I was there and trying to figure this all out, I was collecting a takeaway one Sunday and ended up meeting some guys in a bar; they were working for a construction company and needed some machinery parts – the local Caterpillar dealer was slow and expensive. I saw the opportunity, blagged my way into a deal with them, saying ‘Yeah, we can get those’. Clearly their boss saw me for what I was but gave me the opportunity to deliver something they needed within 48 hours. I then called up a friend to help, we delivered the parts, and went on to secure more business. Looking back, it was a great way to fund an education in international trade.

Back to your question about how I got here today, I would say by making a lot of mistakes. Everyone has to make their own mistakes to learn.

Q: Do you believe there’s no specific pathway to arriving at a career in international trade?

de Mowbray: Correct. For me, it was about being able to travel internationally, and not wanting to work for someone else. But also because I see business as a way to make a difference, a big difference, if it comes from the right place. Greed in business is toxic, business for the benefit of all makes sense and makes a difference.

Q: What would you say is the most exciting aspects of a career in international trade?

de Mowbray: I would say new places, new people and different cultures. Just in the first couple of months of this year I had been to the Philippines, South Africa, Namibia and Chile. I think the most rewarding bit – wherever you are in the world – is finding like-minded people who approach doing business from the same perspective, equally you learn the most from those who challenge you the most.

Q: What are the biggest exporting challenges that exporting companies need to deal with?

de Mowbray: I think at Dints we’re quite lucky because we want to do this stuff – we think exporting and international trade first, rather than we make a product and then sell it abroad.

Probably the biggest challenges are finding good people: it’s a very small set of people who are willing to go out to some of these places. Then, overlay that with the fact that many of them have been around for a few decades, and do business in a very different kind of way than I do.

Specifically in terms of access to finance, there’s a challenge in getting funding to develop new markets because there’s no contracts in place at that point to secure the loan. There isn’t any real government support for going into new markets, other than government telling us that this is something we should be doing. And post-contract funding is really complicated and expensive. I think there had been some progress by a lot of the fintechs, but now some fintechs are funded by the banks, so they still have the same rules as the banks. All this kind of rebellion has been absorbed.

I don’t think it’s simple, but it’s also not impossible. We’ve got a really great banker on our team now who gets our business. When you don’t know what you’re doing or have the wrong advisors, you can waste a lot of money – definitely one of the more expensive periods in our ‘education’.

Q: What advice would you give to young trade and export financiers to help to advance trade?

de Mowbray: I understand that you can’t always share transaction details and business ideas, but I do think that there is a lack of transparency. There needs to be more of that spirit of ‘if I win, everyone else wins’. And, you know, you might not win them all, but that’s fine too. There are deals I worked on for months only to realise it was the wrong client or wrong time. These things come around either with another opportunity or a lesson on how to approach it better next time. Another vital bit – especially given the current environment – is that going forward, business is not entirely about profit: you need to do well by doing good.

I would say: chase what you love doing and the cash will follow, rather than following the cash and then you always end up miserable. Everyone’s a little different, and there are always going to be greedy people. But you need to find a way that by doing things in a more sustainable way, aligning with the SDGs for example – and doing it for the greater good – it is more profitable for everyone. If you do that, then it’s just a never-ending positive trajectory.

Q: What advice would you give young professionals in furthering their careers in international trade or trade finance?

de Mowbray: Immerse yourself in your environment. If you’re working in finance, try to go and do some work experience in an actual exporting business. Often exporters see financing and financiers as barriers, and it’s important for financiers to know that from the start of their careers. As soon as it’s possible again, go to markets – don’t sit behind the screen.

This is more personal advice, I suppose, but try and look at how you can do new things. Don’t accept the norm, try and challenge it, especially right now!

Q: You’re also the co-Chairman of the British Exporters Association (BExA) – what do you do there?

de Mowbray: I was brought in to BExA as the first chair focused on SMEs. These companies are facing incredibly tough times at the moment, and we have really ramped up our advocacy work to ensure that the government is addressing all of their needs.

Since assuming our roles a few years ago, my co-chair and I have given a lot of focus to moving BExA away from being from an old, industrial association that was somewhat prone to government ‘bashing’, changing the culture of that association, and truly getting it to a point where we are furthering our own ambitions as exporters, but in doing so, also helping others.

BExA is a small group of like-minded people, in its 80th year now. I’ve met some incredibly interesting people through the association, and I’ve had some good debates. It has given me exposure to understand how governments work. All the work that we do is purely in the spirit of making the UK more exporter-friendly.