The longest-surviving British companies often stick around only because they are avid exporters – and in the post-Brexit world beyond Europe, huge new markets want your goods.

It is a little-known fact that exports by small British companies began to explode almost immediately after the EU referendum decision back in 2016, according to the Office of National Statistics.

The ONS figures are astonishing, with UK firms having sold more overseas in the 2018/19 financial year than at any time since records began. 

UK exports for that period rose to £639.9 billion, up 2.7% from the previous year, of which goods made up more than £350bn and services £283bn, according to the ONS. 

Since 2016 exports increased by more than £111m – a total rise of 22% between 2016 and 2019. 

There was an understandable drop in the following year, due to COVID-19, but exports both to and outside the EU remained above pre-referendum levels.

If your company is not yet exporting – your time is now. Why? The government’s agency, UK Export Finance, has substantial funds available to help SMEs export goods and services – and companies in the North of England, Wales and Scotland are among the first to benefit.

In Greater Manchester, Union Papertech – a specialist supplier to the tea and coffee market – agreed a UK Export Finance-backed (UKEF) deal worth £720,000 to accelerate further growth and finance new exports across US and Europe. 

It is one of only a small handful of tea and coffee paper suppliers in the world, and with the new funding Union Papertech will expand its export business. During COVID the company began to supply biodegradable filter paper to markets worldwide.

Clients include Tetley, Typhoo, Jacobs Douwe Egberts and Celestial Seasoning, and it already exports half of all products to markets in Europe, USA and other countries.

The company has tapped into UKEF’s General Export Facility (GEF), which aims to help UK businesses access to funding to cover the costs of international trade. Results for Union Papertech have come quickly – it has won two further contracts in India.

Stephen Todd, its finance director, said: “UKEF support played an instrumental role, allowing us to pursue new export contracts and expand our work in producing biodegradable paper.”  

In Wales, a Swansea based exporter of iconic children’s character themed clothing became the first Welsh business to receive support through UK Export Finance’s GEF funds. sells a range of character themed clothing worldwide including Harry Potter, Star Wars, Peppa Pig and their own brand Harry Bear, employing 85 people locally. 

A £3 million trade loan facility will help boost exports by scaling up their business operation. Back in 2009 husband-and-wife team Stephen and Karen Hewitt set up the business and today it is one of the fastest growing companies in Wales with an annual turnover of more than £50 million. 

Each GEF deal allows the UK government to guarantee up to 80% of a facility offered by a bank to finance exports – in this case with Barclays Bank.’s FD Helen Morgan said: “The opportunity that the collaboration brings to is paramount to our ambitious and exciting growth trajectory.” 

In Scotland, Aberdeen-based Reftrade UK supplies refrigerated, offshore and hazardous area containers. It worked with NHS Scotland during the pandemic to provide specialist equipment to keep batches of AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines at a set temperature.  

Reftrade was the first business in Scotland to secure new UK government backing from UK Export Finance. The company aims to triple its headcount and expand its business to meet £1m of export orders. 

With the Bank of Scotland to finance its international ambitions, Reftrade will expand their pharmaceutical exports and supply offshore projects with temperature-controlled containers needed for the construction of wind turbine sites.

The company has plans to triple its headcount and relocate to larger premises, creating new highly skilled jobs in Scotland. 

Martin Baxter, director at Reftrade, said:  “Exports currently make up 20% of our overall sales, but thanks to UKEF and the support offered through the GEF, we have been able to be more vigorous in our sales approach over the past few months.” 

  • Find your Regional Export Finance Manager – a total of 24 are listed here