Pessimism, not Brexit, is holding British companies back

Our self-perception doesn't do us justice, argues South African born MD William Garvey.

by William Garvey
Last Updated: 12 Jul 2019

The British have an innate tendency to be self-critical and understated. While this trait has its merits and can be charming, it is also holding Britain back, especially at a time when Brexit has turbo charged this naval gazing. The UK is blessed with a combination of creativity and technical brilliance that are the foundations for success in the future. It is mentality not Brexit that could be the barrier to successfully realising this potential.  

Looking at the media coverage of the economy, disproportionate attention is given to large manufacturing businesses moving production from these shores or the performance of the pound on the money markets. This negative coverage skews the country’s perception of itself. It places a grey lens over what is actually a technicolour world of innovation and industry in the UK.

The reality of what I see day to day is far more positive and optimistic. There is a vibrant start-up culture, with so many booming sectors, almost full employment and companies surging ahead.  The UK’s natural inventiveness, access to capital and low interest rates combined with a flexible regulatory environment is the reason for the burgeoning start-up scene, underpinning the economy. A flexible and dynamic business culture has drawn so much talent to work in the UK in the past, including myself.

The UK is surprisingly innovative

Leyton as a fast growth company is a perfect case in point: the UK the fastest growing territory in our worldwide portfolio. Ironically a big factor in this growth is related to the British trait of downplaying achievements. Most of the companies we deal with don’t realise themselves that what they are doing is innovation and have been underclaiming for the tax relief they are owed for their R&D.

The UK is actually surprisingly innovative. I say surprisingly because we believe ourselves to be a pretty traditional country, wedded to legacy industries. The reality is far from that. There are so many businesses pushing their industries, ideas and technologies forward from renewable energy to dentistry and robotics. Brexit isn’t the elephant in the room, it’s our false perception of who we are.

The challenge for start-up British companies wanting to scale up seems again related to mentality. We haven’t always got the ambition or ability to take our business to the next level in the way you might see in some other countries. US leaders always want to expand their companies into the stratosphere and sometimes this doesn’t seem to be the case in the UK.

There's a country beyond London

Another myth that exists is London-centricity. Many Londoners struggle to believe that anything happens outside of the capital. Working with companies throughout the country we are in fact seeing some of the greatest innovation happening beyond the M25, whether this is oil decommissioning in Aberdeen, manufacturing businesses centred in the North West or the fintech boom in Edinburgh. The rest of the country outside London is busy innovating and inventing but we hear very little about this.

We also perhaps don’t give enough credit to HMRC, which is striving to create an environment where innovation is encouraged and financially rewarded, more so than in many other countries. These are strong fundamentals that are placing the UK in a good position to weather the storms that may be on the horizon.

The biggest perceived black cloud is of course Brexit but is this actually the case? Most of our clients have switched to a wait and see approach, but Brexit is not their biggest challenge. Inflation and a skills shortage are far more pressing issues.

Success will be based on a flexible and entrepreneurial approach, a highly trained and skilled workforce along with a supportive regulatory environment. To support innovation, Government will need to continue to invest. This is not political – everyone wants innovation and technological transformation - it’s just good for the future. Self-deprecation and not realising the full potential of our innovation may ultimately be what holds the UK back.

William Garvey is the South African born MD of Leyton.

Image credit: Pixabay/Pexels


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