Monday 16 September 2019

Alan O'Neill: 'Avoid complacency and protect your business from Brexit'

A practical guide to preparing your business for the new year - and whatever type of Brexit it brings

Regardless of whether you are directly or indirectly impacted by Brexit, if you haven't taken time to explore and assess your risk, then it might come back to bite you.. Stock photo: PA Wire/PA Images
Regardless of whether you are directly or indirectly impacted by Brexit, if you haven't taken time to explore and assess your risk, then it might come back to bite you.. Stock photo: PA Wire/PA Images

Alan O'Neill

The Brexit agreement proposed last week may be encouraging for some. Whatever the outcome, there is one certainty - and it is that things will change. Many businesses will be impacted either directly or indirectly and we need to understand what that means.

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There is a high level of complacency right now. Only half of Irish SMEs have given sufficient consideration to the various factors that matter. And I fear that might not change much after last week's political news.

I also appreciate that for many of us, the only impact we've seen so far is currency fluctuation. For exporters to the UK, the drop in sterling has eaten into margins (ie, if the supplier has taken the hit) or made them more expensive (if they passed on the increase to the customer). But Brexit is not just about currency fluctuations! Outlined here is the advice that I received from Anne Finnegan, head of customer Brexit strategy at AIB Bank...

Brexit Impacts and Risk Assessment

Currency: The drop in sterling is already a hot topic that you may be well used to. But in a post-Brexit world, experts anticipate a worst-case scenario where the euro and the pound are equal. For narrow margin products like food, that could potentially swallow the full margin.

Tariffs: If the UK doesn't stay in the common market, then tariffs may apply to your products, whether importing or exporting. I don't wish to scare-monger but The World Trade Organisation (WTO) indicates that some food product tariffs can be as high as 60pc. Imagine the impact if that were true for you?

Delays: Paperwork and customs controls for those that have never traded outside of the EU will present a significant learning curve. That'll require new skills, extra cost and require time. In the meantime, how would such delays effect lead times? What about VAT at entry, shelf-life dates, stock levels requirements and working capital?

People working across borders: If you are near the Border and have people living or working on the opposite side of it, what will that mean for employment laws and taxes?

In summary, if you trade with the UK, you may well be challenged with extra cost. You may choose to pass this on to your customers. If you do, what will that do your competitiveness? If you don't pass it on, how can you make up for that margin loss?

Steps to Take

All of the experts and agencies are urging us to use common sense and plan ahead. But there aren't enough of us doing that. Until we know for sure what deal will be agreed, just like Andrew Ingredients in the case study below, we should at the very least start exploring the risks and scenarios.

Savings: If you choose to absorb the extra cost to remain competitive, then where might you make savings elsewhere? Can you do it in your product mix, general overheads, sourcing, people, technology?

Location: Is there a viable option for having a UK registered entity? Andrew Ingredients is a Northern Ireland-based entity with 40pc of its business coming from the Republic. It investigated having a base in the Republic but decided on other options instead.

Working capital: If you need to increase stock levels, or perhaps invest in new facilities or technology, how will you finance that? Have you considered the impacts on your working capital? "We have just launched the AIB Brexit Ready Check, which is a simple online tool for SMEs to check in less than five minutes how Brexit may impact their business. On completion, they will get a risk assessment which will help them kick-start their planning for Brexit," said Finnegan.

Explore alternative markets: Whether you are importing from or exporting to the UK, do you have any other alternatives within the EU, where all of these risks do not apply? If you do change, what other unforeseen risks does that present, such as language, lead times, legal, travel and freight costs?

Talk to your suppliers: Even if you are not directly importing from the UK, you need to engage with your suppliers in case they are. You may be very organised in your planning ahead, but they might not be.

Your people: What new skills are needed? What are the legal implications if you have people either living or working on the other side? What are the travel requirements and border controls likely to entail?

Your customers: Talk to your customers now. Share your thinking with them to reassure them of your intentions to maintain your current service levels regardless of what happens. If they are already planning, do their plans include you?

The Last Word

I have chaired and spoken at a number of events recently in an attempt to inspire businesses to start planning. Those that turn up are already converted.

But regardless of whether you are directly or indirectly impacted, if you haven't taken time to explore and assess your risk, then it might come back to bite you.

There is so much help available to you from concerned entities, such as your own bank, InterTrade Ireland, Bord Bia, Enterprise Ireland and more. Check them out.

  • Alan O’Neill, author of Premium is the New Black, is managing director of Kara Change Management, specialists in strategy, culture and people development. Go to if you’d like help with your business. Business advice questions for Alan can be sent to
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