Mid-market firms using international supply chains have faced significant disruption and headwinds as a consequence of the war in Ukraine, the long tail of COVID disruption and wider geo-political tensions. However, despite ongoing economic uncertainty, many international business leaders continue to see international trade, and particularly exports, as a key driver for growth.

According to data from the IBR, Grant Thornton’s global survey of mid-market companies, 45% of mid-market firms expect to increase their volume of exports over the course of 2023. This represents a slight increase from the first half of 2022 (+1%) and continues the trend that expectations have been rebounding strongly from the lows of the pandemic.

Grant Thornton’s latest research shows how many businesses are innovating and adapting by reshaping their international supply chains as they look to reduce risk, embrace opportunity and deliver value. Businesses have taken a variety of steps to increase resilience, from building inventory to diversifying their suppliers to setting up local manufacturing hubs and ‘friend-shoring’ – striking deals in sympathetic countries that are more politically palatable to shareholders and customers.

Firms that develop a sound understanding of their risk environment and plan ahead will create sustainable value in their supply chains and be well positioned for growth as economic conditions improve and trade picks up from the current levels.

Elaine Daly, partner and head of business consulting at Grant Thornton Ireland, explains,

Overall, the impact of these approaches will depend on a variety of factors, including sector, resources, and the regulatory environment,”

 she continues. “However, by investing in the right strategies and evaluating their options, firms can enhance their supply chain resilience whilst maintaining a focus on costs.”

Andrew Howie, head of advisory at Grant Thornton Bermuda, comments on the importance of supply chain resilience.

“Given Bermuda’s location, creating resilience in the supply chain is critical. Being reliant on a single source in the supply chain can be risky, and identifying alternative suppliers, where possible, provides options for businesses looking to import.” He adds, “While strategy and cost considerations drive supply chain decisions, businesses must be able to defend those decisions when it comes to risk, transparency and sustainability.”

Mid-market Firms Turn Stumbling Blocks into Stepping Stones

Rerouting Supply Chains to Boost Value and Resilience

Business leaders have had some difficult decisions to make on supply chains as they contend with global issues beyond their control. Product costs have always been a key consideration, but firms must also navigate fluctuating transport costs, trade restrictions and the reliability and security of trade routes. As a result, international trade has become more strategically complex and increasingly requires a multi-lateral solution.

International trade was unexpectedly rocked in 2022 by war in Ukraine, with the resulting spike in energy and certain food prices and higher transportation costs. But those initial shocks have eased and businesses now expect to get back on an even keel, with global shipping costs returning to pre-pandemic levels.

Alexander Griesmeier, partner at Grant Thornton Germany, says,

“Prior to the pandemic or the war in Ukraine, many clients were already reconsidering how to optimise the value of their supply chains. These events have led companies to assess risk and look with more urgency at diversifying or relocating production.”

Oliver Bridge, operations consulting partner in business consulting at Grant Thornton UK explains,

“Trade opportunities may not be immediately obvious,” 

“For example, if you run a company within the UK you wouldn't necessarily expect to increase exports given economic conditions. However, for firms sitting in the United States, with the exchange rate at the level it currently is, the UK is looking like a much more attractive option.

Now an American company can buy from the UK far cheaper than you ever used to be able to. The circumstances may be more favourable than you’d initially thought.”

Trade Offers Route to Growth

Effective supply chains enable businesses to deliver value and drive growth. As such, mid-market leaders are adapting their export planning to respond to opportunities to optimise in international trade.

According to Jonathan Eaton, principal at Grant Thornton US, every chief executive should have three main considerations when optimising their supply chain.

  • Firstly, what makes most sense strategically? Where are the markets, channels and customer segments that offer sustainable growth and support the overarching growth objectives for the business?  
  • Secondly, what will be most effective operationally and financially? How can we minimise costs in our supply chain while maximising profit and mitigating risk at the same time?  
  • And thirdly, what is the most tax efficient solution? Are there tax benefits to be had from the way we structure the supply chain, the trading partners we use, and the supporting flow paths to get products to market?

He says,

“Those businesses that can triangulate these three points successfully and adapt their supply chain execution quickly are the businesses which will thrive and take market share. If you can shift your mindset to think more long term, you’re going to continue to grow trade, and you’re going to do it profitably.”

Expectations for exports remain strong among mid-market firms, even though wider economic indicators are more subdued. Two in every five firms (40%) expect an increase in revenue from non-domestic markets in 2023. A similar proportion (41%) were planning to increase the number of countries they sell to this year.

Scenario Planning for Success

In the second half of 2022, mid-market firms saw a slight decrease in the ratio of their employees who were focused on non-domestic markets. These figures were skewed by a major fall in the oil and gas industry but not reflected across all sectors and regions. In Latin America and Africa the ratio of mid-market firms’ employees focused on non-domestic markets increased. The top three markets to benefit are China, Germany and the USA, which are primed to increase supply from external markets. In China 26% (up from 25%) of companies report an increase in this activity over 2023. Meanwhile China’s latest export figures show a near 15% jump in this activity, defying expectations, with some analysts having predicted a contraction of 7%.

Global events have made it a tough time for trade. The outlook from the WTO and others was that trade would slow in 2023, with rising interest rates and financial instability adding to geopolitical tensions. In April, the WTO expected export volumes to grow by just 1.7% this year, well below the average level for the past decade of 2.6%. Firms that plan ahead and are prepared to innovate will be able to make the most of their exports, helping them to stay one step ahead of the competition, despite current economic headwinds and a number of threats on the horizon.