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Main lessons from cross-border Brexit conference? Prepare and innovate!

There has been lots of theory put forward by countless commentators since the UK people took the momentous decision to leave the European Union in June 2016. But now it's time for practice, not theory.

Graham O'Rourke (CEO) Written by Graham O'Rourke (CEO) 5 Mar 2018.

I was delighted to be invited to attend a historic conference on the thorny issue of Brexit recently.

The event took place at the Carrickdale Hotel between Dundalk and Newry. Since the final section of the M1 / A1 motorway connection opened in 2007, transport times between Dublin and Belfast have been significantly reduced, with the obvious additional benefits on cross-border trade.

Situated just off the M1 and a stone’s throw from the border, the choice of the Carrickdale as the venue was perfect. The border area is Ground Zero for the issue of Brexit, and what Brexit means for businesses all over Ireland - although one of the recurring messages of the conference was that Brexit is much more than just a border problem.

Time for practice, not theory

There has been plenty of theory put forward by countless commentators since the UK people took the momentous decision to leave the European Union in June 2016. As next March’s Brexit separation comes unerringly into our collective horizon, however, businesses don’t need theory any more - they now need to know in practice what Brexit means for their operation. Even more pertinently, they need to know what they can do now and in the near future to limit Brexit’s negative impacts.

I was delighted to be invited by Louth Local Enterprise Office, a local government enterprise development agency, to join a panel discussion for this historic event - a first ever business conference co-hosted by partners from either side of the border.

The event was exceptionally well attended, with more than 600 people turning up from all areas of industry: manufacturing, distributors, agri-food, technology and many other sectors.

While the fact that the main speaker was Government Tanaiste Simon Coveney would undoubtedly have generated plenty of interest, the sheer number of people who turned up and engaged in a lively debate on the day underlines the depth of feeling on the issue of Brexit among the business community either side of the border.

The conference was titled “Navigating Brexit”, and I was joined for a panel discussion by Anne Lannigan, Head of the Brexit Unit with Enterprise Ireland; David Roberts, Head of Economics Team at Invest NI; Colm Gribben, the CEO of Viltra; Dr Conor Patterson of Newry Chamber of Commerce, Paddy Malone of Dundalk Chamber of Commerce and Johnny Hanna, Partner and Head of Tax at KPMG.

While it was agreed by all sides of the debate that a free trade agreement with no additional regulatory red tape is the best outcome for business, how that can be achieved, given the current politics of the situation, was much less clear.

So as the conference was positioned as offering a strong focus on the practicalities of business in a post-Brexit world, what were the key practical takeaways for businesses?

The main message to come from all corners of the discussion was that preparation is vital. Brexit will affect your staff, your customers, your business processes and your bottom line. So you need to have a plan to deal with it. It’s never a good idea to have a strategy based on hope, and with something as potentially far-reaching as Brexit, taking the possible consequences into account and having a plan to deal with them is critical.

"Not just a border issue"

Another takeaway from the conference, stressed by a number of speakers, is that Brexit is much more than an isolated border issue, or even one that just affects companies who trade at scale with businesses in the other jurisdiction. No, this will affect all companies in the UK and Ireland. No-one will be immune from the effects.

My focus was on something that has been expressed in many quarters over the past 18 months: that Irish businesses need to buffer themselves against the Brexit impact by diversifying into other international markets.

While this is important, it’s my strong belief that no amount of diversification is going to eliminate the Brexit impact for Irish businesses, and especially for Irish SMEs. Even if they do manage to diversify into new markets, that journey is likely to be a long-term play - and may not even be an option for some businesses.

So what can businesses do?

Lots of businesses have been turning their focus to technology and innovation, and this I believe is critical. Even more critical is ensuring that you make the right decisions when it comes to technology. Having a technology partner who understands all the challenges specific to making all your business processes digital is one way to circumvent the pitfalls that businesses often come up against.

At Aphix Software we have helped hundreds of Irish and UK businesses introduce vastly improved digital ordering and eCommerce processes for their business.

Having a proven technology partner can introduce efficiencies in several areas and allow businesses reach their customers in the comfort of their own home or office, all of which serves to protect margins and keep the bottom line in the black.

The good news also is that the opportunities for more efficient trading between Ireland and the UK brought about by investment in a digital ordering platform such as that offered by Aphix Software also significantly breaks down many of the barriers present in a strategy to diversify into new markets.

One central component of the Aphix cloud platform for all businesses who sell at volume is the ability to internationalise your web and eCommerce offering, in effect giving you an established, robust, search-optimised and mobile shop-front in whichever corner of the world your business is choosing to target.

While Brexit introduces an urgent time imperative all of its own, businesses wishing to improve their existing customer offering while also reaching new potential customers and entirely new markets will also be aware that if they can’t improve their service offering in the short term could find themselves overtaken by competitors.

Given the improvements in technology, that eventuality would present itself even in a world without Brexit. With Brexit, it becomes even more of an imperative to invest in the type of technology solutions that keeps you at the top of the pile, where you can hope to better withstand any fallout from Britain's separation from the EU.

"Navigating Brexit" Conference Conclusions

  • Businesses must prepare!

  • Diversification is an option but it’s a longer term strategy and won’t bridge the gap for most SMEs in the short-term

  • Looking at investments to streamline, protect margins, retain customers and open up new markets is key

  • Selling Smarter by adopting a digital strategy now will help!

Interested in hearing more about the Aphix cloud platform for B2B eCommerce and digital ordering?

Get in touch with us today and one of our team will be in touch asap!