Steve Howell, Freshwater’s chief executive and chairman of Wales World Wide, writes a monthly column - Business Talk - for the Western Mail newspaper. The following article appeared on Monday 18th February 2013. The views expressed are Steve’s and not necessarily those of the company.
Maybe it was beginner’s luck, but my first experience of a trade mission has left me convinced they can unlock growth for Wales.
I was in San Francisco last week with 17 other Welsh companies and the First Minister, Carwyn Jones, to explore opportunities in one of the world’s most dynamic business centres.
The San Francisco Bay Area, which includes Silicon Valley, is home to countless big names in high-tech, bio-tech and clean-teach and has more venture capital activity, both by value and deal-count, than any other business region in the world.
There is therefore no doubting the area’s importance. But the question is: did this trade mission really get under the skin of that market and uncover some hidden gems? Was it a jobs mission or a jolly?
Of course, in these austere times every penny of public spending has to be justified. No one wants a trade mission to cause anybody to wait a second longer than necessary for an NHS operation.
But, equally, a growing economy has more capacity to generate the tax revenues on which flourishing public services depend – and exports offer a path to growth.
The problem with evaluating trade missions is that many of the potential deals won’t come to fruition immediately and are confidential until the ink is dry.
The mission’s headline 100-job deal for Llangennech-based Hydro Industries, signed in San Francisco, was in fact the culmination of earlier work in which the Welsh Government played a significant supporting role.
The new leads thrown up last week will similarly take time to convert. But my conversations with delegation members suggest enough were generated to justify confidence there will be healthy returns.
My rough reckoning is the 18 businesses on the trip met, between them, more than 100 potential buyers of goods and services from Wales.
In one case, a company held a workshop for 13 potential customers. But most of the contacts were one-to-one meetings in which Welsh businesses were getting precious ‘face time’ with key decision-makers.
Take Cardiff-based myPinPad, which has developed exclusive software tools that will increase the security and convenience of electronic payment processing.
Chief Executive David Muxworthy told me: “We targeted five multi-billion pound global operations and were able to meet with the senior executives of three of them.
“Of these we are now in detailed discussions with two of them that could lead to contracts propelling MyPinPad into the global payments market.”
In a very different sector, the representative from GL Jones Playgrounds was equally upbeat about how the mission had thrown up sales opportunities for innovative equipment that allows all abilities to play together.
Hefin Jones, a director of the North Wales-based company, said: “I had five meetings and a positive response in every one. I’m amazed – I’ve never seen anything like it.”
For my part, the mission opened up new contacts for Wales World Wide’s online network in North America and led to a further development of Freshwater’s international partnership with San Francisco-headquartered Glodow Nead Communications.
But, if the businesses on the mission can unequivocally claim individual success, to what extent did the First Minister’s presence add to the process?
I cannot comment in any detail on what came out of the meetings Carwyn Jones had with the Mayor of San Francisco, officials of the State of California and others.
But, for the participants, the value of a ministerial presence was the credibility that comes from being seen to have high-level Government support.
As anyone who has cold-called sales prospects knows, anything that helps you get a hearing is invaluable.
In this case, trade mission members could invite their target contacts to a reception hosted by the First Minister at the British Consul.
As Tony Street, development director of Bridgend-based Biotec, put it: “Even though not many of our contacts were able to attend, the kudos of being able to invite them was important.”
And he thought those who did attend gained a favourable impression, saying: “It made me proud to feel Welsh – and I’m English!”
Wales needs to invest in sales – and, on this evidence, trade missions can deliver a decent return.
Steve Howell is chief executive of Freshwater UK, the Cardiff-headquartered media group, and chairman of WalesWorldWide.org, an online networking platform for Welsh businesses. Follow him on Twitter: @SteveFreshwater