Home thoughts from abroad

The UK scene from the eyes of foreign observers

by MT Staff
Last Updated: 20 Jul 2016

How do others see us? We sounded out seven seasoned foreign-born observers of the UK scene for their thoughts on our strengths and weaknesses. We emerge as entrepreneurial and creative, but could be more positive.

INDIA - ANWAR HASAN, DIRECTOR, TATA LIMITED

Indian companies have been among the biggest investors in the UK in recent times, with Tata to the fore. The UK has been India's European destination of choice and the long history of interaction between the two countries has, in my view, encouraged a uniquely complementary business relationship.

Tetley, Corus (now Tata Steel), Jaguar, Land Rover and Brunner Mond are British names now under the parentage of Tata, but all have successfully maintained their own British identities. Internationally, the 'Made in Britain' tag holds great weight, with a common acceptance that British products and services carry an inherent sense of quality.

The UK's openness to inward investment has gone a long way in securing its long-term future in manufacturing and industry, traditional pillars of the UK economy. India is starting to develop a reputation as a hotbed of innovation and its historic and continuing relationship with the UK is an integral part of this. The combination of Indian innovation and British engineering excellence holds truly exciting opportunities for both nations.

Tata has been active in UK business for over a century and our commitment to the UK has never been stronger. Quite simply, the UK offers a skill-set, business culture and perspective unlike any other market.

Tata Limited was established in London in 1907. It provides the interface between Tata in its Indian home market and its operations in the UK

US - BOB LEAF, PR CONSULTANT AND FORMER INTERNATIONAL CHAIRMAN, BURSON-MARSTELLER

I've lived for 42 years in London, through four of your recessions and it remains by far the cultural capital of the world. It is also now one of the eating capitals - not always the case. You used to drown vegetables and I had to wring out my first Brussels sprout.

A real worry is the UK's financial services community. Bankers very badly need to get together to work out how to communicate their story to a public for whom they represent nothing more than pure, destructive greed. Banks just don't see why it's of any relevance what the public thinks of them. The country needs their contribution, but they are virtually forcing governments to take action against the unacceptable bonus culture.

I worry about your younger people, about teenage pregnancies, binge drinking and the lack of jobs for kids who increasingly think they have to go abroad for success.

In my own profession of public relations, many UK companies are still poor at internal communications and in an era when company loyalty is as good as dead, this won't do. Competition for good people is international and intense. You need to retain that outward-looking focus you had when you were the great imperial power. In future, excursions such as Iraq or Afghanistan will be less feasible - but you must not retreat in on yourselves. Out there is where it's at and you are capable of getting there.

FRANCE - DOMINIQUE SENEQUIER, CEO, AXA PRIVATE EQUITY

I'm a big member of the UK fan club. It's the pragmatic attitude towards business in Britain that is so appealing; you get on with it, without getting bogged down in intellectual and philosophical debate of the Cartesian variety, as is often the way here in France. This means you solve problems quickly and in concrete terms. A strong mercantile history helps you in this respect.

You are good at self-criticism and are sometimes maybe a little too pessimistic, but that's better than looking at the world through rose-tinted spectacles. So don't change too much. Don't take refuge behind trade or immigration barriers. These aren't good and are quite the opposite of what you are perceived to be worldwide - welcoming and open, with a lively economy and society.

London is secure in its importance as a major financial centre. It always appears to be far younger and more dynamic a city than Paris, despite the fact that we are the ones supposed to be governed by the Latin temperament. Talented foreigners admire and are often willing to adopt your culture.

I like the respect the British have for private contracts. One can feel confident that this won't be violated by the introduction of unwelcome laws.

I wouldn't get hung up about selling off UK assets to those from abroad. It does no harm - Axa has a stake in Anglian Water, the water's good and the business is doing well.

What's the problem with that?

POLAND - WLODZIMIERZ WOJCIECH WITKOWSKI, CHAIRMAN AND CEO, 4YOUK

I have always felt Britain - and London specifically - has a great sense of opportunity. It feels as if you can achieve anything you want.

In Poland, I had a wholesale company. After 1989, after Communism, there were opportunities - but the mafia took over and then it wasn't so good. So I came here to start my media business, which publishes consumer magazines and runs a radio station for expats.

When I opened my company, the Polish population here had nothing. The Government says there are about 150,000 Polish immigrants in London - but with the black market, there are probably more like 500,000. Our first idea was to do an immigration advice office for people coming to England - but there was nowhere to advertise it, so we opened Cooltura, our weekly magazine, our website Cooltura.co.uk and launched the Polskie Radio Londyn radio station, the only one of its kind in the UK.

My only worry for the future is that if the Government raises the taxes too quickly, small businesses will suffer. The new rate of VAT is a problem: if they can't afford to pay it, businesses will move on to the black market - I'm sure of it.

London is a very good city to do business in, I like it very much. Why wouldn't I? I came here with just a £1 coin in my pocket and now I've got a business worth a few million pounds. I don't know why I wouldn't be happy.

SWEDEN - HASSE IWARSSON, MANAGING DIRECTOR, CANON UK & IRELAND

There are many reasons why I enjoy doing business here. One of the best things about the UK is that it's dynamic and when you work here you truly feel a part of the global environment.

Also, what fascinates me about the UK is the privatisation of the public sector, or at least part of it. Here, all the utilities companies, the telecoms operations, transport, they were privatised very early, whereas they're still not private in many other countries. That means the UK economy developed in a very different way and gained competitive advantage in those industries that were privatised. It's no coincidence that if you look across the rest of Europe, most of the countries are now following that trend.

One of the UK's other key strengths is its culture of entrepreneurship. What we need to watch out for is that if these entrepreneurial companies are then acquired by a US or Chinese firm, that, even though it may be owned abroad, the production activity is maintained here, to continue to develop the competencies. It is actually less important who owns the company than where the skills come from.

There is also the natural advantage of the language - anyone can come and work here. Not everyone can go to France and work. There is the openness of the people too, and the tendency to embrace different cultures. British people are very polite, which means they'll seldom come across as know-it-alls. But, on the flipside, I think they could be a bit less conservative and open up a bit more.

US - KAI PETERS, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, ASHRIDGE BUSINESS SCHOOL

The pendulum tends to swing sharply in the United Kingdom. Labour brought us years of expensive paternalism where the state purported to take care of everything and made rules about even more things. Having robbed us of initiative and self-reliance, the parents have abandoned ship and left us to our own devices. It's sink or swim and if you sink, that's your own fault.

While this is amusing to read about, it does not really seem to me to be the way to run a country. What the UK really needs is some longer term, sensible planning about what things should look like in 25 years' time.

The blindingly obvious investment is in sustainability. Whether or not one believes in climate change is neither here nor there. What is clear is that natural resources are not infinite. The first step is simple. Upgrading the existing housing stock with insulation and efficiency has tremendous financial returns. The next step is investing in a range of renewables, even if they are expensive at first: nuclear, wind, solar and electrical. Burn the garbage, don't landfill it. Garbage is worth a fortune. And export what you've learned: if not, others will.

The second is around innovation and creativity. Make the internet work. Fibre-optic speeds will unleash untold entrepreneurship. Encourage risk-taking. Invest in opportunities. This is a very creative nation on an individual basis; we need to scale up to make things happen collectively, leaving our half-empty glass at home where it belongs.

FRANCE - LAURENCE PARISOT, PRESIDENT, MEDEF (MOUVEMENT DES ENTREPRISES DE FRANCE)

You are known abroad for your strength and energy in difficult times - Churchill himself famously spoke of having nothing to offer but 'blood, toil, tears and sweat'. And your business identity matches your national identity, showing great resilience in challenging times. That should encourage you to find your way out of our shared crisis.

What is strong about the British way of doing business is your emphasis on relationships. There is an understanding of what you call give and take. And a genuine appreciation of a relationship approach in business goes a long way, especially in the emerging markets, and Asia.

We must not forget your pragmatism - British business seems to have a capacity to get things moving and adapt along the way.

I also believe Britain is more open and accessible for entrepreneurs and SMEs than some of its European counterparts. In the current economic climate, this is an important advantage and will be key to reviving economic growth.

In terms of improving your competitiveness abroad, first - don't be so depressed.

I also think Britain needs to adopt a more diversified approach, rather than putting all its eggs in one basket. Britain is famous for invention. You would do well to find ways to provide better support for your inventors and young entrepreneurs. Maybe too often your entrepreneurs have to realise the commerciality of their dreams in places such as the US. That doesn't make sense.

One other idea: the more European we are in our thinking, the more competitive our individual countries will become. Britain can increase its international competitiveness by making itself more European.

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