Roland Palmer from the Alibaba Group reveals what makes Yorkshire a hotspot for UK export

The Alibaba Group recently released new findings which revealed Yorkshire is one of the top regions in the UK for exports. Business Leader caught up with the company’s General Manager for the UK, Netherlands and Nordics, Roland Palmer to discuss these findings and learn more about what makes Yorkshire such a hotspot for UK exports.

Would you mind telling us a bit about your background and what you were doing before you started working for the Alibaba Group?

I’ve been at Alibaba for six years now, covering the Northwest Europe region. So, that’s the UK, Benelux and Nordic countries. I’ve done a variety of roles there, including in our B2C platform team, bringing businesses from across the region over to China, and I’ve also been leading the payments business, Alipay.

I’m currently focusing a lot on Alibaba.com, which is one of the business units where we believe there is huge potential in the UK to get companies on board. Before that, I worked in consumer goods, consulting and I ran a retail business for five years.

Why is Yorkshire such a hotspot for UK exports?

In our recent research, we studied 2000 companies across the UK with more than three employees and more than a million pounds in turnover. It’s interesting when you look at the data of the businesses in Yorkshire versus the national businesses, and then at the SMEs.

When you look at all businesses, 83% of those in Yorkshire said that they were exporting compared to 77% nationally, so there’s already a difference there. But when you look at the SMEs – for us SMEs are companies with a turnover of less than £50 million a year – 83% of SMEs in Yorkshire are exporting, yet the national level for SMEs drops to 67%. So, it’s the small businesses who are really punching above their weight and putting Yorkshire on the map as a UK export hotspot.

The other dimension is at the city level. We saw both Leeds and Sheffield coming out top of the UK cities in terms of exporting, so there’s something going on but export in Yorkshire is not new. I’ve seen other research in addition to ours highlighting it. The Sunday Times recently published a list of the top 200 UK exporters and 14 from Yorkshire made the list, for example.

What industries are responsible for most of the exports coming from Yorkshire?

The top ones that we’re seeing are fashion – which includes textiles – toys, and food and drink. Food and drink have got a strong heritage in the region and are a very strong economic contributor as well.

What are the biggest destinations for Yorkshire exports?

North America is the biggest destination for Yorkshire exports by far (that’s the US and Canada, so Canada is also very important), and then Europe and the Middle East. Interestingly, when we look at our B2B platform, we have 26 million buyers and 190 countries but the top country where the buyers are coming from is also the United States. So, what we’re seeing is parallel to what’s happening in Yorkshire.

Which destinations receive the least Yorkshire exports?

Roland Palmer, the Alibaba Group

Roland Palmer

I think it’s really the faraway countries, so Australia or even China, which isn’t that far away but maybe it’s a little complex for companies to export to. We still see export happening there but it’s at a much lower level than the US or EU, and I think that’s one of the one of the magic things about online marketplaces, such as us, is that even companies that are so far away, which you would have thought almost impossible to export to, they’ve now become very close.

You can connect within a few weeks, you’ve got your products on the platform, and you’re getting requests for purchases from buyers all around the world. Protein Partners, a company from Manchester that joined us a couple of months ago, said they are getting purchase requests from Vietnam. In the old days, many would have never considered exporting to Vietnam, but by putting your products up into a marketplace, the demand comes in from sometimes unexpected places.

Why are Yorkshire businesses less concerned about the challenges of cross-border trade than other UK regions?

It’s really encouraging to see that more than 80% of Yorkshire businesses are not concerned about the challenges of cross-border trade. With only 18% of businesses in the region having concerns about this, that’s the lowest figure we’ve seen across the country.

I guess it all fits into the whole Yorkshire export dynamic that’s going on. It’s not a recent thing, but there’s a huge amount of export and a huge amount of growth, and that builds confidence. In our research, we see that Yorkshire businesses are very confident about exporting, whilst more than three quarters of exporting companies say they’re expecting their sales to increase in the next year as well. So, I think it’s that confidence which provides local businesses the comfort to say, “let’s not be worried about the challenges because look at all the other businesses around me who are doing great”.

Conversely, in some regions of the country, if there aren’t that many businesses exporting, you might be a bit more worried about the challenges. The other thing is about sharing the learnings. Many have gone through exporting already, so new companies who are starting to consider exporting can ask a lot of different companies about the process, which reduces worries about the potential challenges.

How important are online marketplaces for lowering the potential barriers to export?

Very important. 91% of the SMEs in Yorkshire say that online marketplaces form a key part of their export strategy compared to just 66% of SMEs nationally. So, if Yorkshire SMEs are punching above their weight when it comes to exports and 91% say online marketplaces form a key part of that, perhaps other areas of the country can look at that and say maybe I should get onto these online marketplaces.

Whether it’s just online in general, for export, or online marketplaces, our survey respondents said they reach more potential buyers, it’s more cost-efficient and they didn’t need to travel. I think the whole COVID thing has accelerated the realization that you don’t have to travel around the world to export around the world.

Are big or small businesses more likely to be the ones exporting from the region?

The really encouraging thing is whether we look at all businesses or only the SMEs, more than 80% are exporting. So, it’s small, medium and large businesses that are all taking part. However, SMEs particularly stand out because at a national level, just 67% say they’re exporting compared to 83% of Yorkshire SMEs.

On the large businesses side, in addition to alibaba.com, we have units that are exporting over to China and other areas. They are currently working with big global players such as GHD, who are from Leeds, and they are working with us to export to China. So, there’s lots of great examples of larger companies exporting from the region as well.

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