THE last thing I expected when I was heading out to India was that I would be sat in a room with senior members of the Confederation of Indian Industry, talking about their time spent studying at universities in the North of England.
I was fortunate enough to have recently spent a week in India as part of a Northern Powerhouse delegation. This is not the first time I’ve been abroad representing UK business.
Before settling in Sheffield, I was a senior official in the UK Government, working for the Foreign Office, Department for International Trade and the Treasury and have spent most of my career overseas.
When I was with the Foreign Office at the British Embassy in Beijing in the early 2000s, the colossal numbers pointing to city growth, migration, manufacturing capability and infrastructure development captivated business, media and political audiences.
Numbers help to engage an audience. For India the numbers are impressive: India is the sixth biggest economy in the world and is predicted to grow at an average of 5.9 per cent until 2050. By 2021 it will be the most populous country, with approximately half of that population under the age of 25. India will be the third largest consumer market by 2025, worth some £3.14 trillion. India has an exciting future.
The trade mission of which I was part of was co-ordinated by the Federation of Asian Business, a brilliant body that advocates for the large UK Asian business community. I was joined by a range of businesses from all corners of the North.
Using their connections to the Indian business and civic community, we set out for a jam-packed week meeting dozens of Indian businesses, universities, start-ups, incubators, film makers, advocacy bodies and research institutes in Bangalore, Delhi, Goa, Chendagar and Pune. The message we heard repeatedly was that they are open for business with the UK and are keen to build relationships.
Here in the North we have amazing world-class universities able to attract the best and brightest students from all over the world. While I was discussing the comparative merits of Leeds, Sheffield, York, Durham and Newcastle with senior Indian business leaders, it made me reflect on the importance of personal connections.
Although I found a fondness among many people in the Indian business community for the UK, this does not mean that we should rest on our laurels and expect the floodgates of opportunity to open up with little or no effort. As ever, relationships count, and relationships demand an investment of time of effort.
Sheffield has forged a successful relationship with Chinese business, leading to massive inward investment. While there is still further potential, it would be remiss to not further capitalise on the opportunities in India, and indeed elsewhere.
We must also remember that we are in a competitive marketplace. India is no secret. Many other countries and international businesses are putting in place programmes of diplomatic and business to business engagement. Britain has often been viewed favourably by those outside the EU as a facilitator into the lucrative single market. In the event of a hard Brexit, this will no longer be in our favour.
This is a long-term affair. Good and valuable achievements rarely come quickly and easily. Fortunately, there are some excellent bodies out there doing brilliant work, whether the Department for International Trade in the UK, and our High Commission and Consulates across India, the UK-India Business Council, the Confederation of Indian Industry and indeed the Federation of Asian Business here in the UK.
As a growth nation, India naturally looks towards new tech and innovation. India’s new government is committed to economic growth and has further nurtured that increasingly positive and transparent operating environment. The Northern Powerhouse’s ‘prime capabilities’ of digital, health innovation, advanced manufacturing, health innovation and energy are of great interest and offer scope for successful collaboration.
Whether it is the global firms that invest here, or the new products we create to cater for changing tastes and needs elsewhere in the world, we operate on the international stage. At a macro-level, it is critical. For an individual business, it can be transformative.
As a result of the trip, I made some strong connections for my own business and I’ll be spending the next few weeks following up on the new contacts that I made over in India. I’ll also be reporting back to the Sheffield City Region Trade and Investment Advisory Board on my experiences and working out how collectively we can build relationships and capitalise on this opportunity.
Whilst the number tell a good story about the potential of India for the Northern Powerhouse, there’s more to be told. The personal stories recounted around the table at the CII, about nights in the library and walks in the Yorkshire countryside help us to connect and stand out from our competitors. It’s our within our gift to make the most of it.
Simon Collingwood is a director of PR firm Quatro North amd member of the Sheffield City Region LEP Trade and Investment Board.