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World-class Highlands exporters call for better transport links

The Government is being urged to encourage more businesses to export goods
The Government is being urged to encourage more businesses to export goods

From far afield across the Highlands, today’s lunch guests all arrive at the Kingsmills Hotel in Inverness in good time.

We are welcomed by the hotel’s efficient and friendly general manager Craig Ewan, who already knows most of the the party anyway. Since the hotel’s refurbishment, it has become a regular haunt of Highland business leaders to meet or entertain clients and suppliers.

We have come to the place to discuss how businesses in the Highlands can capitalise on export markets.

Stewart Nicol, the chief executive of Inverness Chamber of Commerce has selected some of his organisation’s members who represent the best of what the region has to offer the world – whisky and shellfish. Also trading on the Highland’s reputation for purity and quality is Cobbs Bakery, which marks the latest development in how Scottish provenance can help local firms make way in global markets.

Bakery director Angus McMaster says his firm, which enjoys £10million in sales and employs 350, is just starting to export. Cobbs specialises in handmade cakes, cupcakes and tray bakes which all promise “a slice of the Highlands” from its base in Drumnadrochit. Established 12 years ago, the firm has successfully broken into new markets in England where it now makes 40% of its sales. Next up is Ireland and later on, the Middle East.

The firm is currently looking at choosing a distributor.

“We know what we want,” says Mr McMaster. “We are playing for universities, schools, visitor centres. That’s our kind of gig. Next year we will be looking at other markets. We will look further afield. The Middle East is a natural market for us. They like sweet things there.”

Transport is a key issue. The firm’s products are fresh baked and the need is to get it to the customer as quickly as possible.

“Our barriers are we don’t have a long shelf life with our products,” says Mr McMaster. “The reason for that – and it is our unique selling feature – we don’t use additives or preservatives. That’s why we are in schools and hospitals – it is all natural.”

The firm is now working on ways to extend the products shelf life beyond their current eight to 10 weeks.

“Being able to dispatch our products easily would be helpful,” he adds wistfully. “Without a shadow of a doubt, a road and rail network that is up to scratch would transform our business.”

Laurence Watkins knows very well the difficulties that the region’s transport infrastructure can throw up. Along with his wife and a scallop diver, he started up Keltic Seafare in Dingwall 22 years ago. The firm started by sending its daily catch of hand-dived scallops to London’s top restaurants via a special compartment on the sleeper train.

Now 60% of the firm’s annual £7million sales are abroad – mostly in France, Spain and Norway. Using airports in Inverness, Aberdeen and Glasgow, Mr Watkins has been looking further afield. But his product has to get to the world’s top chefs in 24 hours. He admits sending live langoustines to Tokyo or Hong Kong can be a “logistical nightmare”.

“We have about 70 boats – they are small, all one and two man vessels. We have 14 vans picking up in 39 harbours,” he notes.

Sending out product to Hong Kong or Japan has been a challenge that he has tried and admits still hopes to crack. So how do you get live seafood to Japan?

“We flew them,” explains Mr Watkins of his efforts at reaching the world’s greatest consumers of fresh shellfish. “But soon after that the tsunami happened. We didn’t make much money by the time we got it to Japan. It was too expensive. But it is still a market we are going to look at,” he notes.

Meanwhile, we have settled into the Kingsmills’ historic Adams room, the smallest of the hotels hospitality suites and well suited to private dining. Our orders are taken and wine is served.

Mr Watkins surprises us when he opts for the ricotta and spinach tortellini with white wine sauce and parmesan shavings as a starter, rather than the West Coast langoustine with consome and a side of salty samphire. He admits he doesn’t actually eat much shellfish. Mostly because it is important to sell the products his company provides. He thinks it would be unfair if only some of the directors were helping themselves to the shellfish while others didn’t.

Robert Anderson, the chief executive of the historic Highland distillery Tomatin opts for the tender chargrilled rose veal ribeye with black olive mashed potato and asparagus for his main course, a popular choice. He joined the firm based in the Monadhliath hills outside of Inverness shortly after the distillery was acquired by Japanese conglomerate Takara Shuzo in 1986. He took over the top role in 2010.

“We have always been an exporter,” says Mr Anderson of the distillery, which enjoys sales of £16million, of which 75% are exported. “The change now is the quality of what we export.”

He explains how the firm has focused strongly on moving its product upmarket, particularly since the economic crash of 2008/9.

The move has largely been from the production of blended whisky to single malts. Both Mr Anderson and Mr Watkins agree that the consumer with money to spend on luxury products has so far proved recession proof.

As the distillery’s product has changed, the firm has had to reconsider its distributors – a key relationship for spirits producers. Keltic Seafare has also used partners to enter markets such as Barcelona and Madrid, while finding a company that can take Cobb’s baked goods to the right retail outlets in Ireland is one of Mr McMaster’s top priorities.

Tomatin has 50 distributors worldwide, usually about one for each country. The company has been adapting its roster of international sellers in order to get into higher value markets.

“It is all about getting the right distributor,” says Mr Anderson. “They know the legal side of distribution. They know what the labelling requirements are. They have an idea of what it takes to actually get into a country and the hurdles you have to jump through.

“In the early days we had distributors we had to let go of because they weren’t the right fit for us. We tend to go for the very best distributor we can afford to be with.”

The trickle of whisky from the North of Scotland to bonds and bottling plants in Alloa and then to global markets is a well established one. What Mr Anderson finds tricky is getting out to his customers, and when his customers come to him.

“We visit them quite a lot and they come to us as well,” he says. “Connectivity is very important for us.”

Mr Nichol says lobbying and campaigning for transport connections as well as digital infrastructure is one of the chamber’s main activities. On a more practical level, it has brought international markets closer to its members having launched a service which provides support and advice as well as offering necessary export documentation right from Inverness.

“Transport is a challenge for us when we are talking about top quality food and drink,” says Mr Nichol.

“We have introduced this year Inverness Chamber International – a private sector commercial offering to the Highland business community that gives advice to make sure organisations have the skills and understanding to trade internationally.

“In the last few months we have a small team of staff that we now issue export documentation certification. That is the first time ever it has been available from a Highland base.”

As coffee is served, all around the table agree that getting products out of the area is their key issue.

But we note that in the hotel’s Adams Room, we are looked down on by a bust of Robert Burns, who once famously dined in the same room. The proof of this is in a letter the bard wrote which is on display in the hotel.

It reminds us that there is something unique about what Scotland can offer, and what the Highlands in particular can sell to world markets.

“We sell fresh air, beautiful unspoilt seas,” notes Mr Watkins. “That is what we are selling.”