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Optics companies looking to trade abroad have a local ally

02 May 2008

British companies setting up in the US need specialist advice, as do American businesses looking to invest in Europe. Matthew Whiteley of UKTI tells OLE how he can help them be successful.

Matthew Whiteley is vice-consul for trade and investment at the British Consulate-General in Los Angeles. He works for UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), the British government's commercial arm that helps UK businesses succeed in international markets, and also encourages overseas companies to look to the UK. He focuses on information and communications technology, which includes the optoelectronics sector.

What is the role of UKTI?
We embed ourselves into the markets to make the maximum impact, rather than just act as the local representatives of the British government. We are the doorway for companies wishing to reach the international community.

Our approach is sector-focused, which means that we can spend time on specific strategies throughout the year, rather than just operate opportunistically around trade shows and exhibitions.

How do you assist companies in the optoelectronics sector?
Plenty of the US optoelectronics companies that we work with take it as a given that they are going to be global companies. Even though they are based in the US they want very much to exploit the Asian and European markets, and the UK is a natural location to enable them to do so.

However, many optoelectronics companies are also quite small or are young organizations. If they are looking towards the UK from abroad, they may not be able to afford to have many people based there. So our approach is built around the clusters and policy networks that exist in this sector. Clusters can provide opportunities for collaborations between companies, or even between the clusters themselves.

For UK photonics companies wanting to do business in the US, we aim to avoid them being overwhelmed by the size of the photonics market and not knowing how best to approach it. We can introduce them to the strong clusters and other players in the industry here who already know each other.

What assistance does UKTI provide?
For foreign companies looking to invest in the UK, we can help them to find premises, obtain corporate bank accounts and advise them on the legal and tax structures. We are there to make sure that companies don't make mistakes and that the UK business environment stays strong. Our role is to convince companies to go to the UK, rather than to other European locations.

We also help UK companies wishing to trade overseas. I consider that to be slightly more difficult to do. UK companies looking to grow abroad might not necessarily think of their own government as being able to help them, so we are proactive within the UK in making ourselves known to companies.

We can guide them on overseas markets and how to buy into them, since we are embedded in those markets and know them very well. They can essentially hire me to assist them, and I'm happy to talk to anyone who calls.

Do companies fully appreciate everything that is involved?
I suspect that the conversations we have with photonics companies are not the most exciting ones for them to have. Companies focus on their end goal of sales, while we focus very much on the means to that end, and on issues that may become challenging if not addressed. We try and spell it out in a way that equates to greater efficiency for them, but even so they may not really want to be having the conversation. We try to help companies manage risk.

When UK optics companies come out to the US they sometimes see it as one country with one culture, when in fact there are a great many different business cultures and a variety of ways of getting things done. Companies may feel as if they have to start things moving entirely on their own, but in fact there are often local groups in place that we know about. Being embedded in the local business community can really help us to get things moving.

Do global economic factors affect what you do significantly?
There is plenty of talk about recession in the US, and I certainly wonder how this will impact both our trade and our investment activities. At present I don't see any slow down in our clients, which is encouraging, although the new financial year might see companies being more hesitant to grow internationally.

But the other side of the same argument is that successful US companies will want to protect themselves from any domestic slow down by becoming more involved elsewhere, specifically in Europe. If they can start making profits in sterling or euros, then they will benefit from those higher-value currencies.

Inward investment to the US will be affected by how the health of the US economy is perceived in the UK. Optics companies will be worried by any economic downturn, but on the other hand they might feel that there is a window for them to come in and make a play in the US market. Doing so now might not cost them as much as it otherwise would.

Whatever happens, our business development work isn't going to stop. I know of a US photonics cluster that is concerned about the state government withdrawing money, and worried that there will not be the funds to do business development on the same scale as last year by themselves. But they have developed a strong relationship with us, and we have a very serious agenda for photonics. We will not let local government funding issues get in the way, so we will just have to be a bit cleverer about how we spend the money in order to make things happen. We like to get creative.

• This article originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Optics & Laser Europe magazine.

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