Terry Partridge is the managing director of RA Watts Limited, a British SME that has been exporting chemicals and minerals to manufacturers in the Indian subcontinent and Africa for over 60 years.
The company joined BExA – and Terry became a member of the BExA Council – in 1988.
Since then, Terry has devotedly championed the needs of the Association’s SME members, providing input and guidance that has been greatly appreciated across the membership. He was appointed as a BExA vice-president in 1997, and became Chair of the BExA SME & Trading House Group in 2001.
Having taken the decision to step down as BExA vice-president in May this year, Terry remains a member of the SME and Micro Exporters Committee.
Given his wealth of exporting knowledge, BExA took the opportunity to speak to Terry about his career in export sales, his ongoing BExA membership, and the welcome changes he’s seen implemented by the Association over the years.
Q: Can you provide a brief overview of your exporting business? What have been some of your exporting career highlights?
Partridge: RA Watts Limited was set up in 1953 by Mr Ronald Watts to export chemicals and minerals to emerging markets, including Pakistan and Bangladesh. They're still our main markets some 60 years later. We’re a small company; today we're just two full-time employees – my business partner Marilyn Macdonald and myself – and two part-time.
I joined the company 53 years ago as a trainee shipping manager. I got to grips with that job fairly quickly, and was soon promoted to sales. I really loved selling British products overseas, and that passion remains with me to this day. That's why I'm always so happy to bat for BExA and its ideals in promoting British exports.
The biggest satisfaction I've had out of exporting has been to win business against the odds, when you think it's virtually impossible.
For example, in the early 1980s, it was a shocking time in this country – everybody was going on strike at the drop of a hat: factory workers, warehousemen, lorry drivers, dock workers, seamen – anyone at any time, or some altogether, would stage a walkout. Can you imagine trying to export and fulfilling orders on time, when there were so many weak links?
Within the context of that situation, I had a meeting with a businessman in Ghana, who told me in no uncertain terms that he would not be placing any orders with me because he had been let down numerous times by British suppliers. He had made the decision to never do business with a British company again. And so our meeting became more of a social visit, and we chatted about other, non-business-related matters instead. He eventually decided that he put in an order after all – but with a warning that if I let him down in any way, I would be failing not only my company, but also the whole of Britain. It was touch and go!
Somehow or another we managed to get that order to him on time, and he was so grateful. We went on to supply more, and different, products. It was very satisfying that we were able to defy the odds, and there were many other instances like that.
Q: You’ve been involved with BExA for 33 years: talk us through how your relationship with BExA began and how it has developed over the years?
Partridge: Prior to joining BExA, I was the chairman of the Association of Shippers to Africa, which eventually disbanded for various reasons. I needed to find another association with an ear to government, and that's how I came across BExA.
My company had got involved in a terrible situation in the 1980s in Nigeria, which was experiencing severe debt problems, leaving it unable to service its debts. We had been exporting to Nigeria at the time, and very fortunately had most of the business covered by short-term insurance from ECGD – as it was known then – and were able to get paid out roughly 90% of the debt. But of course that left 10%, which we hoped eventually to receive payment for, either from the Central Bank of Nigeria or ECGD. However, in its wisdom, HMG along with other countries decided in 2005 to write off the debt. Affected companies such as mine argued that although HMG had a right to write off its own debts, it had no right to write off ours, ie the unpaid 10%. That was one of the causes that I brought to BExA when I first joined.
I was very grateful for the help that I received from BExA. In the end, all our efforts came to nothing, but BExA did its level best, along with myself and other affected exporters, to take ECGD and the British government to task.
BExA sought and funded a legal opinion from an eminent QC dealing with government and ECGD matters, and although that legal opinion was favourable to us – and found that the British government did not have the right to write off our debt – that’s exactly what the government had done. It took us many years to wipe that debt. Numerous other companies went bust.
Q: In what ways has BExA has changed over the last few decades, since you first joined?
Partridge: When I first joined BExA, the Council consisted entirely of men, would you believe it? Something else that irked me and some fellow exporters was that the Council was occupied by a majority of bankers and financial service providers, rather than exporters, which rather decried the name of the Association. What’s more, 90% of the time spent in Council meetings revolved around ECGD – it was very much the prime subject.
I’m happy to report that BExA has made significant changes on all of those fronts since then. Yes, a lot of time is spent discussing matters related to UK Export Finance, but export finance and insurance are vitally important factors to exports.
Since day one, I have been very much involved in BExA’s SME Committee, bringing to the table issues that would be of interest to small and micro businesses, like my own, and ensuring that these problems have the attention of BExA and its Council. It wasn’t always easy to have those issues heard, but that has changed, thankfully.
What has constantly been of great value to me as a member of BExA is the steady stream of fellow members that are always happy to help address problems, whether related to exporting, or more general business matters. There has always been somebody in BExA that I could approach, and I've also had the privilege of returning that by putting myself forward to help where I can.
Q: What have been some of your standout memories of your involvement with BExA?
Partridge: In addition to the help that BExA provided over the years with regards to the Nigerian debt, as well as other issues we’ve had, I have many good memories. For one, the social side – the annual lunch and the Spring reception, and being invited to many other events – has been a real highlight. That's just an added bonus, beyond the call of duty. I've had some great times with fellow members.
I’ve also been involved as a judge on the BExA Young Exporter of the Year awards, and that has been a real pleasure and so enlightening. There are a lot of people in the country that think the UK doesn’t manufacture or export anything, and they would be astounded to listen to the young, talented people we have met over the years. They have included inventors and negotiators who have won multi-million, some even billion, pound contracts overseas – it’s fantastic.
Q: If you could provide one piece of advice for British exporters today, what would that be?
Partridge: Post-Brexit, this country and its exporters have a wonderful opportunity to expand their business and exports outside of the EU. So many British companies have been supplying the EU countries for numerous years and treating it – until Brexit – as a home market. Effectively, it didn't matter if they sold their goods to Birmingham or to Brussels, it was the same thing, apart from having to send them across the Channel.
Now, post-Brexit, they suddenly realise that they have unwittingly become exporters overnight. And if they want to continue their business, they need to go through all the trials and tribulations relating to exporting. But now that’s been done, they should be able to adopt that process which they've learned to markets outside of the EU. They know how to do it, and the world is their oyster. This is the drum that BExA needs to keep banging.
Posted 19 July 2021