UK mid-sized businesses are being too conservative in their export ambitions and ignoring key growth markets overseas, even though they are aware of the benefits, new research from Lloyds Bank shows.

Almost three out of five firms turning over between £25 million and £750m said they do not currently export and just seven per cent are looking to start within the next five years.

The Lloyds research found selling overseas is a top three business objective for just 17 per cent of firms over the next twelve months. This contrasts with 43 per cent who said focusing on growing their UK market was their top priority and 60 per cent who are primarily focused on increasing turnover.

Loading article content

Liz Cameron, chief executive at Scottish Chambers of Commerce, commented: "This report's findings mirror many of the messages that we have picked up from our Chambers International Trade Survey in Scotland.

"Businesses are aiming for growth but too few are yet accessing the opportunities that international trade can bring. We found that over half of businesses making the move to exporting reported increased profits within 12 months, so the potential benefits are clear."

When those firms already exporting were asked which countries they were targeting over the next decade, China was favourite, with 14 per cent aiming at that market followed by the US, Germany, France and then Brazil on five per cent.

Tim Hinton, managing director for SMEs and mid-sized business at Lloyds, said: "Although there is a great deal of interest in emerging economies, there is still a relatively low level of export activity to these regions … too many UK firms appear to be prioritising markets closer to home over the long term."

Cost reduction was the priority for 38 per cent of mid-sized firms in the survey and 34 per cent cited the need to increase productivity, reflecting the fact that firms focus on their own performance before looking at exporting.

Yet businesses are aware of the benefits of export - 73 per cent said the main advantages of overseas trade were expanding their customer base and 77 per cent linked it to growing sales and profit.

The barriers cited by reluctant exporters included not having the contacts, not having suitable products, not understanding legal and regulatory requirements, not having resources to investigate new markets, and volatility in exchange rates. Only five per cent of firms said lack of access to finance was a barrier to exporting.

Ms Cameron added: "Chambers of commerce can provide support to businesses looking to make the move into international markets, with services such as trade missions, export documentation and mentoring support.

"The Scottish Government has ambitious plans to grow Scotland's exports but it will need a stronger partnership between public and private-sector exporting support services to succeed."