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Sweet taste of export success

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 20 Sep 2022

Taking the pain out of UK imports for clients around the world has helped Ramsden International transform overseas sales from a niche business to an export giant.

From starting out as a niche business keeping the expat community stocked up on brown sauce, baked beans and Ribena to an export giant with customers in around 140 countries, Ramsden International’s evolution to a trusted resource for food retailers and wholesalers around the world has served it well.

“We supply retail wholesalers who need to source a range of British grocery products from a single source,” explains the company’s founder and Chief Executive, Sean Ramsden MBE. Today Ramsden International offers a comprehensive range of 24,000 grocery products – from basic food items to gourmet, health and speciality food – sourced from more than 600 manufacturers. 

Customers range from specialised retailers to health food and sweet shop chains, the food halls of department stores and some of the world’s largest supermarket chains – Ramsden boasts three of the top 10 among its client base – all united by a penchant for British delicacies.

Ramsden International continues to serve the expat market but the business has also successfully tapped into a growing demand for British foods among local consumers in overseas markets. “UK manufacturers are at the forefront of product development and innovation, particularly in areas such as health food and confectionery,” Ramsden says.

Far more than a box-shifter, Ramsden International prides itself on taking much of the pain out of the process for overseas clients, an enormous value-add given the highly regulated nature of the food sector. “We created a completely different model of international wholesale in British food,” Ramsden explains. Instead of forcing retailers to source their British food from different importers, Ramsden International acts as a one-stop shop. 

“We don’t really sell British food and drink, we sell a supply service of British food and drink. A lot of the value that we create is by offering a turnkey supply solution; we manage the logistics and the compliance and complexity around importation in different markets.” 

The challenges of navigating the different rules across so many export markets is no mean feat, Ramsden admits. It’s not just understanding trade policy and import duties and tariffs but also ensuring products are compliant with domestic legislation, whether that’s translating ingredient labels and nutritional panels to make them compliant in the markets in which they’re sold, or producing country-specific barcodes. 

“We’re very much a business that’s focused on doing those messy, complicated things as part of our core. There’s a lot to get your head around to do that. Our focus over the last 25 years has been to invest in that capability.”

It’s a strategy that has more than paid off. Today the company turns over around £50m and employs 100 people, mostly at its office in Grimsby, but also across sales offices in six countries around the world. But success hasn’t always been a straight path, Ramsden admits.

EU sales used to represent around 50% of international exports but took an enormous blow when Brexit came along, not to mention the red tape now required to get goods into Europe, Ramsden warns. “Our orders might have products across hundreds of different categories, each of which requires a separate set of documentation. Some of our orders come with documentation and paperwork several inches thick.”

Ramsden’s solution was to work at breakneck speed to set up its own subsidiary in Belgium to import from the UK and then sell to customers within the EU. “That’s been a bit of a lifesaver to us but we’re still only able to offer about a third of our range of products to our customer base and we are still nowhere near our pre-Brexit turnover.”

Nonetheless, Ramsden is adamant that EU exports present huge opportunities in the medium-to-long term. “Brexit has created a lot of complexity, but a business like ours is about managing that complexity. Many of our competitors simply put it in the ‘too difficult’ box and withdrew from it. 

“It’s made it very tough,” Ramsden adds, “but I’m hoping that if we were to have this conversation two or three years down the line, we might be saying Brexit was probably quite a good thing for our business.”

Regardless of your target market, those thinking about exporting should ask themselves whether they are at the right stage for international expansion, Ramsden urges. “Very often I see companies try to export before they’ve really got a foothold in the UK. The UK is a huge market and food will always be better sold closer to where it’s made, because it’s bulky, low value and there are often shelf-life issues. 

“The textbook thing is that you identify a target market before proactively approaching it. My sense is that a lot of smaller businesses start exporting reactively in response to an inquiry from overseas. I think there is scope for having a foot in both camps; do your research and identify market opportunities, but don’t discount opportunities that come to you as well.” 

Over the years Ramsden has visited 90 countries and spent the equivalent of at least four years with customers overseas. “There is no substitution for being on the ground and, with food in particular, there’s nothing like being in a customer’s shop, looking at the aisles or in their offices talking to them face to face.” 

That’s particularly true in the Middle East, the Far East and Africa, Ramsden says, where business takes on a much more personal dimension. “In those countries, you’re far more likely to find that people do business with the other people they like and know.” The pandemic has shifted attitudes towards virtual meetings, Ramsden says, “but we have 14 salespeople who are still out and about, clocking up air miles and spending our travel budget!”

Despite phenomenal export success Ramsden believes opportunities for growth are plentiful, helped in no small way by greater internationalisation of tastes and the emergence of a new kind of consumer – well-travelled and cosmopolitan, and looking for something a bit different to put in their shopping basket. “We’re in Grimsby and at my local Sainsburys I can buy foods from all over the world.” 

While 25 years ago, overseas buyers may have jumped to make gags about bland British cuisine, chefs including Heston Blumenthal, Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay have succeeded in putting the UK on the culinary map. “There’s an increasing recognition that British food and drink is actually very good.” 

ICAEW is working with DIT to promote the export services available to businesses. Find out more About our services - Department for International Trade - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

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