Inspiring trip sells the Westcountry to China's 'humongous' market
Westcountry food and drink were to the fore as Prime Minister David Cameron led Britain’s biggest ever delegation to China, and it has delivered immediate results, as Andy Greenwood reports.
The 120-strong business delegation read like a Who's Who of British business – Jaguar Land Rover, Rolls-Royce, BP, Barclays, GlaxoSmithKline and Virgin.
But also among the trade mission led by David Cameron were small businesses looking for big opportunities within the world's second largest economy.
Flying the flag for Devon and Cornwall were Charles Baughan, from Westaways Sausages in Newton Abbot, and Jonathon Jones, from the Tregothnan Estate, near Truro, in Cornwall.
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Both returned from the three-day trip last week in inspired mood, and satisfied that the region had "punched above its weight" in such exalted company.
They also returned with immediate deals and strong hopes of breaking further into the powerhouse of the Chinese economy.
Mr Baughan, managing director of Westaways, admitted that he felt "like a kid in a sweet shop".
"There we were with this incredibly high-powered delegation," he said. "There were some really diverse people on that plane and we had access to people and places that we would never otherwise have got to.
"We travelled 15,000 miles and we paid for everything, air fares, hotels and buses, the whole lot. I slept for eight hours in three-and-a-half days. It was not a junket, it was one hell of an opportunity."
Mr Baughan is hopeful the top levels talk will cut through the bureaucracy which has so far prevented it from shipping its sausages to China.
Agreement has already secured allowing pigs feet and stomachs to be exported to China, which adds around £5 to the price of a single carcass.
And while that does not directly benefit Westaways, Mr Baughan hopes to be shipping produce to China in two months.
He said: "Here we are, a small family owned company in the centre of Newton Abbot with 35 employees, selling to a market of 600 million middle class Chinese – it is humongous. We have got one big chain interested in taking frozen packs of raw pork sausages and a hotel chain which is looking to put our sausages into 200 of their hotels as breakfast sausages, which is about 140 metric tons.
"That wouldn't have been possible if I wasn't part of the delegation.
Mr Baughan was happy to have put the Westcountry "a little bit on the map" but believes there are huge opportunities to come, particularly exploiting the link between tourism and the region's food producers.
"The food and drink sector in the Westcountry is particularly strong, worth 17% of all employment," he added. "There's a huge opportunity to sell ourselves to the world as a 'foodie' destination.
"It is estimated that by 2020, 5% of total worldwide GDP will be spent on tourism.
"Imagine bus loads of people coming down to the Westcountry, eating our food and then going back home and buying it from their local supermarket.
The Tregothnan Estate started supplying England's first tea in 2005 and has already struck a deal which will see tea shipped to China.
"I met a lot of passionate, inspirational people," Mr Jones said. "The Prime Minister very kindly introduced me to Jack Ma, who set up Alibaba which is the biggest online sales community in the world, bigger than Amazon.
"He'd already e-mailed me before I got back and has sent two e-mails since then and we are now in business.
"Without the Prime Minister's introduction I would never have met him. For me personally it was a huge opportunity, and a privilege, to spend time with so many inspirational and experienced people."
To see the trade mission at work on the ground, he admitted, had "opened his eyes" and that for Tregothnan it was a "complete gear shift". He said Devon and Cornwall "certainly punched above their weight on the trip".
"It obviously helps that the Prime Minister has been down here," Mr Jones added.
"Tourism is our biggest public relations asset. When people come here, they see the environment, the coastline and sample our food and drink – the Prime Minister gets that, and that's our most effective marketing tool.
"We got so many 'name checks', more than any other region.
Like Westaways, the trip has delivered immediate new business for Tregothnan.
"We are looking to set up a British Tea House in China," he explained. "I was talking to one person, from a leading hotel brand, who said 'come back to me with some plans and we'll make it happen next year. It's unbelievable.
"A tea shop in Shanghai, which is taking our tea, are also planning a live web link from our tea garden at Tregothnan into their shop so people can see life on a British estate."
Both men hope that by cutting a path to the Chinese market, they can help other local businesses to follow.
"It was exciting, stimulating and inspirational, and I'm just so glad I could sell the Westcountry to the world," Mr Baughan added.