18 November 2014

UK fire protection and fire-fighting industries are recognised throughout the world for their quality products and engineering skills. They are represented by the Fire Industry Association Export Council as part of the wider FIA and it comprises a range of companies from smaller entities looking to expand their export interests to others that are world-leading organisations with considerable expertise in a number of markets. The Council itself brings together these providers in an environment of mutual support to maximise our members’ collective export capabilities.

The history of fire safety in the UK may be traced back to the time of William the Conqueror who required all fires in houses to be extinguished at night and with the first building control laws dating back to the London Building Act that followed the Great Fire of London in 1666. We have journeyed a long way since then with more recently the Regulatory Reform Order [Fire Safety] of England and Wales of 2006 requiring a ‘responsible person’ to carry out a fire risk assessment for premises and conduct the necessary remedial actions. This unrivalled heritage culminates in the UK’s rightful distinction as world leaders in fire safety, an historical pedigree coupled with modernistic approaches and with our companies committed to best practice not only in technical aspects of fire safety but also in business integrity and ethics. Bringing quality and innovation as well as adherence to recognised standards, approvals and certifications, UK manufacturers’ product offerings are found the world over.

In the UK, there is thankfully a generally downward trend in fire deaths over recent years but it still remains at around 400 per annum while in the USA the figure is around 3,000. In Europe alone there is an estimated 20-25,000 fire deaths every year and globally the figure rises to up to 80,000. In financial terms, UK fire losses are around £1.3bn pa which equates to some £3.6m a day and data suggests that of businesses suffering a major fire incident, over 80% fold within 12-18 months. There is no doubt, therefore, that effective fire protection and fire-fighting saves lives and reduces both the immediate and consequential losses attributable to fire.

UKTI has concluded that UK companies overall are turning in increasing numbers to exporting and at an early stage with almost one in six new enterprises being ‘born global’. The figures demonstrate increased growth, productivity and innovation arising from export activity, 38% of respondents indicating sales expansion and 53% noting a new product or service that emerged from overseas business. 

We need only observe the FIA Export Council membership to confirm that the fire protection sector is very much part of this process and for many organisations, including SMEs, their overseas revenue exceeds that of their domestic business. Our own survey augmented by available market data indicates that annual exports in fire protection are c. £350m and in fire and rescue equipment at least £150m.       

There is, however, a disappointing trend in actual export performance across the sectors where we see that the UK share of global exports has fallen from 5.3% in 2000 to 4.1% in 2010 while Germany’s share has increased from 8.9% to 9.3% over the same period. One in five UK SMEs currently export compared with the EU average of one in four and the CBI has recently stated their aspiration for us to gain parity and, in doing so, raise the export contribution of our GDP from 29% to 36% by 2016.                             

The global economic outlook remains subdued with a growth rate of around 3% which is itself down on projections of 3.5% made in late 2012. Of course, both the present and projected world growth figures are highly regionally specific with the greatest challenges apparent among the more mature economies including the USA, Japan and the Eurozone. The picture is much brighter in the so-called emerging economies where China is set to grow by over 8%, India by 6% and strong performance noted generally in Latin America, southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Even in Europe many view the ‘emerging’ countries in central and eastern parts of the continent as significant growth prospects and figures show that UK exports to this region are growing substantially. 

All this shows that for every country in negative growth, including major markets such as Spain, Italy and Greece, there are many that are posting remarkable growth numbers, with some such as Libya approaching or exceeding double figures. With emerging markets reckoned to contribute some 70% of world growth over the next few years, opportunities for UK fire protection and fire-fighting providers in the world market are significant although subject to analysis of many other factors including demographics, construction growth, market accessibility and commitment to the provision of quality fire safety backed by relevant legislation and standards.

The FIA Export Council itself has enjoyed a period of significant membership growth with 61 members at the time of writing - over two and a half times the number of just three years ago. This provides us with a terrific opportunity to expand our field of experience and to present the Council as a much more strongly-populated and influential organisation than ever before. Over 80% of our members are OEMs and of the total 70% are seasoned exporters while others have aspirations to grow this element of their businesses. Three quarters of our members have started exporting in the last 20 years including almost a quarter in the last 5 years and nearly 60% of members report that at least a third of their annual turnover is attributable to exports and for many it is the majority of their business. 

In terms of their export markets, the results by region are widespread. While the USA and Southern and Central America are served by less than a third of members and Oceania by less than half, all other parts of the world are addressed by at least two thirds of companies with western Europe most prevalent at 93% followed by the Middle East at 79%. Our members collectively are looking to increase their export activities across all regions although most notably in the Middle East, eastern Europe and Asia.

There are certainly some challenges to be met. Local market conditions in any given country may be exacting and penetration inevitably requires determination and a medium-to-long term approach to success and the barriers to be surmounted are sector-specific as well as generic. Not only is there often a need to meet national testing and certification requirements but the increasing specification of US standards and certifications particularly in the Middle East and Far East makes it much more difficult for UK companies to gain acceptance for BS/EN products and systems.    

Three years ago the UK Government stated an aspiration to double overseas trade to £1 trillion by 2020 while UKTI DSO concurrently set an internal aim of growing the UK share of the fire and security export market from 4% to 5% by 2015 which represents a highly ambitious 25% increase in three years. Exports currently of some £0.5bn pa across the active, passive and fire-fighting sectors are far from insignificant and developing this figure is essential to the health of the industry at a time when domestic opportunities are yet to improve substantively as we emerge from the recession. The FIA Export Council continues to play its part in representing the UK fire safety industry collectively and, in doing so, contributing to the export successes of its constituent members.

David Smith, Export Manager, FIA