With Britain’s commercial health flourishing, it is time we mastered the art of global self-promotion says Max Steinberg, chairman of the International Festival for Business
First the good news: and there’s plenty of it. Britain’s is the fastest-growing economy of any in the G7. Despite some recent downcast predictions, manufacturing has continued to grow in 2015, and the creative industries are arguably in ruder health than they have been in decades.
A burning question, though: have we, as a nation, been shouting about all this loud enough on the global stage? Have we managed to raise our game when it comes to global self-promotion to match our ingenuity as an industrial nation? “As a country we haven’t,” says Max Steinberg, chairman of the International Festival for Business (IFB) taking place in Liverpool in June and July 2016. “Maybe it’s something to do with our DNA, our psyche, but we’re not a country that is always on the front foot in putting forward British products.”
These words have resonance when one considers a recent survey of 1,250 firms by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) and delivery firm DHL, which claimed that UK exports have fallen to their lowest level since 2009. As John Longworth, director general of the BCC, pointed out: “Driving export growth is key to reducing the UK’s deficit and maintaining our global competitiveness.”
So what’s the solution? The IFB could be one. Steinberg believes it is an antidote to Britain’s decades-long failure to establish a thriving international event culture – a core component of many a fast-growing nation’s export drive.
“If you look at the last 20 years, countries in the Far East, Germany and others have undertaken these kinds of major, domestically based expos or trade fairs regularly and they’ve been very successful,” he says. “It’s odd, when you think about it, that a country with such advanced manufacturing and engineering, with expertise in as many fields as the UK, hasn’t been taking the opportunity to put on display what it’s all about. Like a lot of things in life, it’s a very simple idea, it’s done successfully elsewhere – let’s do it in this country.”
Given the inaugural IFB in 2014, also in Liverpool, was the first major international business expo Britain had hosted since 1951, Steinberg appears to have a point – especially considering the event’s impressive impact on British business. More on that shortly: but the IFB’s story begins a few years previously when, as chief executive of Liverpool Vision, Steinberg oversaw the city’s award-winning participation in World Expo Shanghai 2010, a six-month global event themed Better City, Better Life.
“We were the only UK city to have a pavilion,” he says, “and Liverpool’s turned out to be the most successful pavilion of all the world cities present.
The region did millions of pounds’ worth of business as a result.” In the wake of Shanghai’s success, Steinberg found himself musing aloud to Lord Heseltine and former Tesco chief Sir Terry Leahy – both of whom he’d worked with before on Liverpool-related projects – as to why this country didn’t do major expos showcasing British products and services.
The idea of a major business expo in Merseyside was included in an independent report from Heseltine and Leahy, in October 2013, which set out a blueprint for growth in the region. Steinberg was appointed chair, and tasked with making Britain’s first such event in 63 years a success.
“As a direct result of introductions made during IFB2014 over £250m of new investments were secured by more than 200 companies. In addition, export deals with an estimated value of £100m over the next two years are anticipated by 750 companies, with around 15 per cent of the companies that participated in the festival now exporting for the first time. Our internal evaluation, one year on, found that around 9,000 jobs were created following IFB2014 and more than £300m investment created for UK plc. Sixty eight per cent of participants surveyed were eager to attend IFB2016.”
The 2016 event is smaller, but more ambitious and better targeted, featuring 75 events over three weeks instead of 424 over 50 days: “In 2014, we had representatives from 92 countries – we’re going to have more than 100 countries here in 2016,” he says. “We know which types of events led to export deals or successful B2B meetings, so we’ve gone for more of those. It’ll largely be about manufacturing, energy and environment, and creative and digital.”
Steinberg is keen to point out that the nation behind such world-changing innovations as the locomotive, television and the world wide web remains one of the planet’s most inventive. “Some of the derivatives that have come out of the discovery of graphene in Manchester, along with some of the new biomed and biotech products being produced in this country, are not being promulgated to the extent that they could be towards [global] markets,” he says.
“There are state-of-the-art R&D capabilities across the UK, and we have a range of world-beating innovations in a number of fields – manufacturing, robotics, composite materials, aerospace, nuclear technologies. Over the last five years our digital and technology sectors have changed beyond recognition. London was recently named the best city in Europe for digital start-ups, according to innovation charity Nesta’s European Digital City Index.”
In short, Steinberg is calling for more projection of what Britain has to offer. “Doing business in this country is very much on the agenda of investors and venture capitalists who see the UK as an ideal place to be doing business,” he says. “So [the country’s prosperity] is about putting our business credentials in the shop window and saying to the rest of the world, ‘Come and talk to us, do business with us.’ There are deals to be made.”
Max Steinberg CV
1952 Born in Liverpool
1981 Worked with Michael Heseltine (then environment) secretary) following civil disturbances in Liverpool on flagship regeneration projects
1992-1999 Negotiated and secured £50m Merseyside Special Allocation
1999 Awarded OBE for services to housing and regeneration
2010 Appointed chief executive of Liverpool Vision and steered city’s award-winning, six-month participation in the World Expo, Shanghai
2011 Awarded a senior fellowship at Liverpool Hope University in recognition of his services to housing and regeneration
2013 Honoured with a CBE for services to business and the community
2014 Chaired the International Festival for Business in Liverpool, which delivered £280m in export sales and investment, and was opened by prime minister David Cameron