Sean Ramsden can see past the gloom-ridden short-term forecast of a no-deal Brexit, writes Eamonn Duff
From a dusty corner of his father’s Grimsby based wholesale business, Sean Ramsden developed the UK’s leading export company specialising in British grocery brands. Today, he sells more than 23,000 products to shops, wholesalers and independent retailers all over the world. As the king of ‘Brand Britain’, he’s fast becoming a go-to-voice as the national media attempts to grapple with the realities of international trade beyond Brexit.
If his business model works, why can’t others? “I think Brexit is an opportunity for UK exporters to cast their psychological horizons much broader than they used to be,” he told FMCG CEO. “If you look where the growth in consumer demand for exported products is coming from, it’s not western Europe. It’s Africa, it’s India, China and Latin America.”
He acknowledges the “difficulties” that will inevitably arise from branching out into new markets. “Yes there’s going to be a period of readjustment,” he said. “And yes, there’s going to be winners and losers, most probably more losers to begin with. But that, for me, is where the growth opportunities lie. And if I’m honest, they’re the parts of the world that excite me far more than western Europe.”
Prior to Ramsden having taken the reins, his export firm was a small, inconsequential arm of his father’s company, supplying much-missed British treats to ex-pats in far-flung corners of the world. “My grandfather started a retail business in 1946 and my father then came along and set up the wholesale operation in 1963. All through the seventies and eighties, this tiny little export business remained hidden away,” he explained.
Fast forward to the early nineties and Ramsden realised that following in his family’s footsteps was not such a bad idea. “It was an interesting time,” he explained. “You had the formation of the single market in Europe – which is topical now. You also had quite a weak sterling. And that confluence of things, weak sterling and a lack of barriers, meant that actually, quite a big opportunity presented itself in the short term. On finally graduating from university, I looked at the landscape and decided let’s do something with this. And that’s what I did.”
Ramsden recalls, with fondness, those early days when individual invoices were being bashed out, line by line, on an old-fashioned typewriter and he himself was picking individual orders, for a handful of customers, from the warehouse floor. But slowly, as the business grew, it was formed into a separate division and, eventually, a separate company. In 1997, the company was rebranded to NISA International and remained under that banner until 2010 when it became Ramsden International. During those years, the business won two of its three Queen’s Awards for Enterprise (International Trade), and launched a website showcasing more than 12,000 products.
“The historic core of the business was, and to an extent still is, the global ex-pat market…and that is a very specific consumer market involving British people now living overseas wanting British favourites,” he said. “In some cases, it’s quite ‘old fashioned’ brands. The Garibaldi biscuits, Atora suet, Ribena, HP Sauce, Heinz Baked Beans…the obvious products. And we still do a lot of that. But I think where we have been moderately successful in growing our business is being able to break beyond that particular niche into other niches.”
An example of that success has involved Ramsden International working hand-in-hand with the growing number of challenger brands, resonating with trends, who don’t possess the distribution channels to extend their footprint overseas. These products span Speciality, Health, Chilled, Frozen and more. “UK manufacturers are coming up with some really innovative products that don’t really exist or haven’t yet caught on in overseas markets,” said Ramsden, adding: “We exist by being able to offer those brands into markets where there’s a genuine consumer opportunity for them.” He points, however, to some “weird paradoxes” in the niche wholesale game. Most notably, if business ever becomes too successful, it inevitably “does itself out of business.”
“Years ago, we went to a very large overseas retailer with a proposition to take over brands and products not available in their market. We invested a lot of time and effort and it grew into a multi-million pound account. But of course the problem is, when you’re that big, somebody says why are we buying from a wholesaler in the UK…and they pick up the phone [directly] to the manufacturer. Suddenly, the customer disappears off the face of a cliff. It was a lesson in understanding the niche nature of our business.”
When Brexit does finally land, Ramsden International will take comfort from the fact that two thirds of its existing business is already non-EU. While a No Deal would present significant obstacles for him and everyone, Ramsden believes there’s only so much preparation and scenario analysis a business can do. “I stopped, a long time ago, predicting what’s going to happen. But assuming it [No Deal] does happen, and depending on what form it takes, there are potentially far more opportunities than there are challenges.”