1 May, 2012, by Paul Yeomans

I am a Bear of Very Little Brain

It almost goes without saying that Universities are stuffed full of very clever people. Even after five years in the University though I’m still excited to see a Nobel Prize winner in the carpark (he gets his own space!) Or stand in the cafe queue behind the eminent Chemistry Professor whose periodic table videos went viral and were on the Google staffers must see list of web links for several weeks.

On top of that the chance to see some of those incredible minds in action over the course of five years in various meetings and seminars is genuinely breath-taking. On several occasions I’ve left meetings to emerge back into the corridor, head spinning, brain trying to catch up with the last hours’ worth of ideas, notions, theories and areas of concern and realised just how far away the really exceptional minds are from us mere mortals and the way our grey matter works. (hence this blog title)

But although we (the business engagement team) sit here in the University we are very much externally facing and this means we get to meet a whole host of businesses from the large corporates to the small family businesses and everything in-between as well. This week one of those businesses gave me a really good insight to some clever thinking at the other end of the spectrum from Nobel Prizes but nonetheless so effective that it has now been nationally recognised both by government and business alike.

The business are in the consumer goods market, food to be precise, and as a result of reduced margins from the big supermarkets decided to focus a good deal of attention on the export market for their well-established and well developed products. Faced with a bewildering choice of every global market on the planet what did they do to research where the best prospects lay?

• Hire a team of consultants?

• Buy a bunch of industry sector reports?

• Bring in expensive staff from global players?


What they did do was check out where all the trade fairs were and when. Then they combined these with a weekend visit to the city by the MD. When he arrived his first job was to tour all of the local retailers, buying and sampling products to learn the tastes of the market, at the same time creating a database with details such as pricing, producers and distributers until they had a good picture of the market. They did this over the course of a couple of years and built up quite a database. When they finally exhibited themselves and got over 300 enquiries they were then able to turn many of these into business using the knowledge they had amassed. They are now a leading UK exporter in their sector and are expanding even further afield.

I like the approach, just because it seems so simple. Want to know what a market is like? Go and have a look. But isn’t this too obvious to even mention? Doesn’t everyone do it? Well in that sector everyone hasn’t, they have tended to focus on a UK market with diminishing margins rather than tackle export in a meaningful way. I know of a 500+ international company that went into an overseas market on the back of expensive market reports, consultants advice and some hunches from the senior team, only to find that the local market wouldn’t buy from them because they weren’t ‘home’ manufacturers. That business now no longer exists.

As a University the most exciting projects are where we can align the excellent, commercial, pragmatic approach of this sort of business with some of the head spinning academic expertise contained within these walls and ensure that everyone benefits. Aiming for that kind of collaboration is challenging for all parties but when it works and it often does it can be seriously beneficial for all involved.

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