28 (123) 2017
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Effecting introductions and presenting market insights – the BPCC in Britain

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Michael Dembinski talks to Michael Clay, the BPCC's vice-chairman UK, about the development of the British-Polish trading relationship since Poland's EU accession –  as seen from the UK.

You have been the BPCC's vice-chairman UK for over four years, and active in the Polish market since 2004. Over that time, what changes have you seen in the way British business perceives Poland as an export market and investment destination?

I've been working in the Polish market since 2004, originally arriving in Poland to take advantage of the opportunities that were to be opened as a result of Poland becoming a member of the EU. On arriving, I was struck by the lack of the number of other British businessmen taking the same view. However, I was very pleased to note that Britain was well represented in the market and as a result I contacted the BPCC. Becoming a member seemed of great importance at the time so that my colleagues and I could be sure of the right introductions and being pointed in the direction we required by the knowledgeable members of the chamber.

While forming a new company in Poland, we were surprised at the bureaucracy and legal systems which appeared to be very different from previous experiences in the UK and in other countries in Europe. However undaunted we proceeded to begin our new venture. Over the last 12 years a lot of changes have taken place in Poland, doing business has become easier, but I must say, it's not the easiest it could have become. With what initially seemed huge differences in the perception of starting up a business in Poland and exporting goods from or to the UK, to what it's become today –  a regular daily occurrence –  has been a huge leap for Polish buyers and sellers.

Back then, many Polish buyers didn't fully understand the way in which exports to Poland were actually effected. The dynamics of the business were in some cases very difficult for buyers to grasp, and ensuring safety of the transaction was of paramount importance for both parties. Now, some 12 years later, there is a firm understanding and a real will to do business between the two countries. Exports from Poland have increased year on year even faster, making the UK Poland's third most Important export market. Equally, the sales of British good and services have increased year on year and we have now become the tenth largest exporter to Poland.

Talking every day to British business and suggesting firms should be looking at Poland as a destination for their goods and services, I have seen a distinct change in attitude. At the outset, most would reply that the Polish market was of little interest to them. Indeed many didn't know where Poland was – how long it took to fly there or what the population was. viewing the country as being of no interest at all or very low on their list of priority destinations. At this time, the UK government was promoting export to the BRICS economies. Meanwhile, the market of 100m consumers who joined the EU since 2004, a market on the UK's doorstep, was left to German, French, Italian and Scandinavian businesses.

Now Poland has become much more important. Britain knows a lot more about the country and its people, no doubt helped along with the sheer number of Polish workers and families travelling to the UK for work.

What more needs to be done to raise the profile of Poland among British businesses – and who should be responsible for this? The British government? The Polish government? The private sector? Business organisations such as trade associations and employers' bodies?

Raising the profile of Poland is a very important issue if UK is to sell more goods and services to this destination. A great deal still needs to be done however if the UK is to succeed in making Britain a more important exporter of their products and services. There have been a number of organisations in the UK and Poland dedicated to increasing business between the two countries but many of them are focused on exports from Poland and the success of Polish exports speaks for itself. In order to increase the number of new opportunities for British companies, there needs to be better communication and education of what Poland is and what it can offer to these potential exporters. With the largest part of the British business community being in the SME sector, and with the largest part of the Polish economy also in this SME market, it seems that more effort must be made in this area of business and opportunities to do more business is just waiting for someone to take the initiative.

The UK is fortunate to have the British Chambers of Commerce and its member chambers all over the country representing a huge part of the local goods and services industry from all sectors around the country. I believe more interaction with this group of chambers needs to take place. Regular contact and seminars on export which can feature Poland are of importance so that these local business people can have an understanding of the opportunities that are out there.

In addition the business organisations already in communication with this sector are only too happy for us to engage with them as the BPCC, to get the message across to their members about the opportunity that lies in Poland. I'd like to see more and stronger contact with organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and other organisations which work with specific industries or services.

The BPCC already has very good relationships with a number of the regional chambers of commerce in the UK, Essex, the West Midlands, Hampshire and West Yorkshire to name just a few. In addition we've engaged already with professional bodies such as CIPS, RICS and the ICAEW –  an organisation which represents the accountancy industry. There are many more organisations than this specialising in specific sectors of industry, business and services and there is no reason for them to be unaware of the opportunities in Poland their members.

The big question of whose responsibility it is for these organisations to engage with the concept of increasing exports to Poland is another matter. The BPCC has always viewed this as a major part of its own remit, to support, assist and generally be available to increase business between the two countries. In this regard, the BPCC has an exemplary record and is to be complimented on its year on year performance. Whilst the UK government supports our initiatives, there's no specific direction for the above-mentioned organisations to participate in a programme that could see their members doing more or new business in Poland.

I believe a joint effort by the British Embassy in Poland and the Polish Embassy in London together with a firm programme of developing relationships with organisations across the UK will make a huge difference to the ability of Poland becoming a major export destination for UK goods and services.

There's still much uncertainty surrounding Brexit, in particular, from the point of view of companies trading between the UK and continental Europe, about the Britain's place in the single European market and the customs union. Given your experience in export and import, how concerned are you about the UK's potential uncoupling from the EU economy?

The matter of Brexit comes up in every conversation I have with buyers and sellers in Poland as well as the rest of the world. Everyone questions what will happen next and how will this transition take place. Many importers and exporters of course still doubt whether Brexit will indeed happen. Clearly our Prime Minister is resolute in her approach, and decision to this issue and I do feel that as responsible business people we must support the UK government in its decisions to move towards the new goal of exiting the EU.

Recently, Theresa May laid out her views and plans in principal for this exit of the EU to take place and she insists it will be hard exit. If The EU will not work on this with the UK, she prefers to walk away rather than have a bad deal for the UK.

That is a very strong point of view and yet by the same token, the UK needs a deal which is for the UK benefit and the people of Britain have made it clear in their referendum vote as to their feelings on the many subjects imposed on us by being members of the EU.

We don't yet know what will happen with regard to the Single Market free trade agreements, the customs union and general ability to trade. However one thing is clear to me, that Britain will continue to trade not only with the EU but around the world and increase its position as a trading partner in every country. One of the problems we seem to be facing is the reaction by Europe to the decision of Brexit, the fact that many are angry in other European countries and may feel that Britain has let them down. There have been some knee-jerk reactions with the cry to ‘punish the UK’ for making such a decision. I believe in truth that as we approach signing of Article 50, the entire issue will be about simply negotiating those trade deals, and it may be that the formula which is currently being negotiated in non-EU countries will form the backbone of treaties with Europe. This may come as a treaty for all of the EU or as it is now possible to do so, individual treaties with each of the EU member states.

Of course there will be a transition period of unrest and on easiness, and if it will be a bumpy ride or soft one –  we don't know, which is another reason for British businesses to look at Poland while we can in order to create a relationship in that country with which business can follow.

For a British firm looking to do business in Poland for the first time, things can look quite daunting. What advice would you offer to entrepreneurs or export managers who are considering the Polish market?

For a British business to establish a working relationship with Poland, there's a number of things they must do. In the first instance, some market research has to be undertaken to ascertain that their good or services are of interest and potential clients can be found. This can be undertaken by several organisations. including the BPCC which has a dedicated trade team with a proven track record of getting UK exporters established in Poland. This trade team was built over the last three and half years and now numbers 10 people in Warsaw with additional staff in Kraków and Wroclaw. All the members of the team have experience in exporting to Poland and a wide knowledge of the market that UK exporters wish to penetrate. In addition we have many members of the chamber who have the experience and knowledge to be able to help new exporters to Poland, in particular in the area of professional services; accounting, legal, real estate, HR, as well as logistics and marketing. These contacts should be able to help and it is important that new exporters take the advice and experience which is on offer.

There are many experienced professional advisors ready to help British businesses find their way in Poland –  and quite a few of them are BPCC members! What would you look for in a professional advisor when taking a first look at a new market or trade or investment?

In seeking advisors to assist in finding a way into the Polish market, a key primary concern should be that such advisors really do have a full knowledge of the market place. Your advisor should be someone who's already in Poland and capable of providing the information and advice you will need.

From a personal point of view, I took it upon myself to seek the assistance of the BPCC, and as a result was introduced to member companies who each were specialist in their field and with the ability of help me understand and make decisions. This was important as there is also a distinct language barrier, if you're trying to conduct business in Polish. This is another area where changes are evident and I find that nearly everyone in business in Poland today has a very good ability to speak English or at the very least employs at least an individual to act an interpreter where necessary.

I still think that the BPCC and the British Embassy are important in pointing new exporters to Poland in the initial right direction. From there you have many options to enable contact to the best member companies and their specialist fields. As many of these member companies are English speaking or headed by ex-pats there's a high level of expertise just waiting for newcomers to take advantage of. Many Polish companies also work with these British members as they are qualified in their work. This is something which increases the confidence in the advisor you are working with.

An increasing number of Polish businesses are setting up operations in the UK, seeing it as a springboard to distant markets beyond the EU, or else as an interesting market in its own right, a market of 65 million relatively wealthy consumers. How can the BPCC in the UK help them find new business in Britain? What benefits does BPCC membership in the UK offer them?

It has been noticed that an increasing number of Polish businesses are setting up in the UK and questions have been asked as to why this may be so. One has to remember that there is an ease of setting up a business in the UK which when compared with many other countries is admired throughout the world.

With around one million Polish migrants and families in the UK, it would seem obvious that making ones' way in the new country would be to gain work. This can be a difficult transition for some and bearing in mind that not all Polish migrants are builders, plumbers, electricians or manual workers, there own hard earned Polish qualifications are capable of being utilised in the UK and put to use.

For some this has not been easy, coming to the UK and perhaps not speaking the language at first has made it difficult to find work. As a result, many arriving in the UK initially took on a labouring role of some description. Later having learned English, they have found the ability to open a business of their own. In other instances, Polish migrants with high academic qualification have been able to go straight into banking, accountancy and the legal profession.

Because starting a business in the UK is a simple process and a limited company can be formed in just a matter of hours, many find the comfort of having a limited company a good way forward. Others have simply got on with their work based around their qualifications and are just self employed. However it should be noted that there are some 30,000 Polish businesses in the UK employing staff and in many instances employing British staff not just other Poles.

I have heard from a number of Polish companies that have set up a UK business as a limited company as a means of protecting their operations in Poland. Some were concerned with the lack of development in the way Polish business taxes are paid and prefer the UK system of taxation. I have no doubt they will pay their way and pay all the local UK taxes they should and in some instances I am aware they have transferred their businesses to the UK to ensure an easier ability to do business around the world.

Polish products in the UK are of the highest quality, yet many of these products are related to the food sector and with such a large number of Polish migrants now living in the UK, their food requirements from Polish manufactures is well taken care of by the numbers of Polish companies exporting to the UK. In addition, many British families are now eating Polish food on a regular basis having been introduced to a number of these by Polish friends and neighbours.

Membership of the BPCC can be of great help to Polish members also. A large proportion of our membership is made up of Polish companies in the UK who we are able to help with introductions to people and business who need their services and products. The UK office of the BPCC is situated in central London in Portman Square, half a mile from the Trade and Investment section of the Polish Embassy, itself situated in Gloucester Place. The main embassy is also just a little further away in Portland Place making access to the Embassy or to the BPCC easily possible in one visit to the central London area.

As part of my remit as a board member, 10 years ago this year, the BPCC started an important relationship with the Polish Embassy and this is celebrated each year with an annual Christmas networking event in December.

The Polish Embassy and the BPCC have been working closely together ever since then, maintaining a regular series of events at the Embassy itself or with members at other locations around the country. These events have covered a huge number of topics, ranging from starting up in Poland or the UK, property, legal and corporate matters and covering all sorts of issues such as exporting and importing and just simply trading between the two countries.

In conclusion, I must say that my experiences in Poland have been nothing but delightful. The ability to set up a major operation here and to to do business has been a great and happy experience for me. Involvement with the BPCC as both a board member and as vice-chairman has given me a great insight into the development of trade between the two countries and as a result has placed me in a position to help others who want to make this transition.

Poland is a place that all exporters can do business in whether you have a product or are selling a service, this destination is a really great opportunity –  both now and after Brexit.

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