British Exports Hit A Record High

Published in Investing on 13 October 2011

The UK doesn't make anything nowadays, right? Wrong, as these top British exporters prove!

Judging by all the doom and gloom in the papers these days, you'd think British manufacturers and exporters were in terminal decline. Actually, thanks to a weaker pound, UK exporters have done rather well recently, despite the weakening global economy.

Record exports

Indeed, we learnt today that UK exports hit a record high in August, helping to trim the UK's trade deficit to a mere £1.9 billion. Total monthly exports of goods and services hit £31.4 billion (up 0.5%), while imports declined by 0.7% to £33.3 billion.

Of course, this is good news for the UK economy, because it shows the gap between what we sell overseas and what we import into Britain has narrowed. Also, stronger-than-expected exports could give a boost to economic growth in the third quarter of 2011.

'We don't make things nowadays'

There is a common misconception that -- following a painful restructuring of the UK economy during the Thatcher government of 1979 to 1990 -- the UK 'doesn't make things any more'.

In fact, we are the world’s sixth-largest exporter of goods and services, according to the British Chambers of Commerce. The UK is also the world's sixth-largest economy (behind the US, China, Japan, Germany and France), so we still punch at our weight as exporters.

A dozen British brands

From the Industrial Revolution to the late 1890s, the UK was the largest economy, manufacturer and exporter in the world. We were overtaken by America around 1900 and the US held the crown as the world's largest manufacturer for 110 years until 2010. However, the US should finally be overtaken by China this year, thanks to the latter's hard-working population of 1.3 billion.

Despite the UK's decline from its Victorian majesty, 35 of the world's largest 1,000 manufacturers are British, according to the latest IndustryWeek 1000 survey.

Here are the top 12 of these world-leading British businesses, ranked by revenues:

2011 RankCompanyIndustryRevenues ($b)
57Unilever (LSE: ULVR)Food59.2
88GlaxoSmithKline (LSE: GSK)Pharmaceuticals44.7
90Imperial Tobacco (LSE: IMT)Tobacco44.0
119AstraZeneca (LSE: AZN)Pharmaceuticals34.1
123BAE Systems (LSE: BA)Aerospace & Defence33.2
167British American Tobacco (LSE: BATS)Tobacco23.6
191Wolseley (LSE: WOS)Machinery20.6
229Rolls-Royce (LSE: RR)Aerospace & Defence17.5
240BG Group (LSE: BG)Petroleum & Coal Products16.4
251Associated British Foods (LSE: ABF)Food15.9
251Diageo (LSE: DGE)Food15.9
251Reckitt Benckiser (LSE: RB)Food15.9

As you can see, the UK has four top food firms (Unilever, ABF, Diageo and Reckitt Benckiser), two world-class pharmaceutical firms (GSK and AstraZeneca), two leading defence businesses (BAE and Rolls Royce) and two large tobacco companies.

Furthermore, lower down the list lies a host of widely admired British engineering firms, including GKN (LSE: GKN), Smiths Group (LSE: SMIN) and Cookson (LSE: CKSN).

What Britain does best

In its Great Britain campaign launched on 21 September, the government listed these 10 areas for Britain to be proud of:

1. Countryside

2. Creativity

3. Entrepreneurs

4. Green

5. Heritage

6. Innovation

7. Knowledge

8. Music

9. Shopping

10. Sport

Perhaps we should add five key industries to this list: pharmaceuticals and biotech, defence and aviation, food and drink, communications -- Vodafone (LSE: VOD) has 382 million customers worldwide -- and oil and energy expertise.

Lastly, the City of London ranks alongside Wall Street as a core hub of the financial world, while our entertainers and musicians are widely acclaimed globally. Also, don't forget the booming sales of Scotch whisky overseas.

In short, despite our ailing economy and austerity measures, Britain still has much to be proud of!

More from Cliff D'Arcy:

> Cliff owns shares in GlaxoSmithKline. The Motley Fool owns shares in AstraZeneca, BAE Systems, GlaxoSmithKline, Reckitt Benkiser and Unilever.

Share & subscribe


The opinions expressed here are those of the individual writers and are not representative of The Motley Fool. If you spot any comments that are unsuitable hit the flag to alert our moderators.

TomJefs 13 Oct 2011 , 6:08pm

Anyone remotely curious with global trade will be familiar with this. The question is how will these companies perform in the next 50 or 100 years?

Bravefish 13 Oct 2011 , 7:40pm


Are we really good at green? A significant portion of our offshore windfarms are being done with/by scandinavians!


Just because, the holding co is British, doesn't mean the products are made in the UK. I doubt BAT manufactures all the cigerettes (if any in the UK). A lot of BAE's ops are overseas. BG plc is another example - much of there production will be outside of the UK north sea - and subject to taxes in those jurisdictions and should be classes as an export from there.

In fact in some of these cases, some of the products sold in the UK may be made overseas.

charvil 14 Oct 2011 , 10:37am

Excellent, great to see some great British news.


Basia02 14 Oct 2011 , 2:28pm

Of course, a lot of our exports are services, which dont involve making anything. This is an area where we have long been a successful player

fedupwithbanks 14 Oct 2011 , 7:16pm

People making things - make jobs!

It's just that we have priced ourselves out of the market in this area.

Small business' capable of providing jobs, making things, are just hopelessly strangled by red tape (the jobs-worths in red tape know their jobs rely on it too! ). We spend most of our time up to our necks in paperwork/certification/hse/ etc etc, instead of driving business forward.

Dozey1 14 Oct 2011 , 7:41pm

Yes, and their was another straw in the wind this week that made me sit up. N Brown (BWNG) in their confident interim statement this week, said We are significantly increasing the goods sourced from UK textile manufacturers and we are actively helping to build up the sector's production capacity . This type of import substitution bodes well, and I hope other retailers are actively investigating sourcing their products nearer to home.

pickepics 14 Oct 2011 , 9:13pm

Cliff, had I not read some of your other articles I could easily have mistaken this for a party political broadcast. Both Thatcher and Brown assumed that, because the British establishment class has always been excellent at financial manipulation if little else, the financial services group of industries could provide all the jobs we needed and if there were a few folk left over there would be enough tax revenues to pay them off in benefits. They are the two people on the planet most responsible for the collapse of the jobs available outside the capital in Great Britain.

Whether you wish to speak of overall jobs or just manufacturing jobs. What is left of our manufacturing base had to be very fit and very strong to survive those two catastrophic individuals. No wonder it's doing relatively well now with a somewhat weaker currency. Make note, most of those exporters are small businesses. The ones you name are bringing profits home. Take a look at their UK employment numbers as a total of their overall employee numbers. Then take into account that employees pay a far higher proportion of their incomes in taxes than anyone else in any western economy.

I have given up on party politics. Each party, at least the three that count, are internal coalitions of political groupings with conflicting political and economic philosophies. Until they break up into coherent, sensible, compatible units we never will be able to trust them because only a minority of those elected on any manifesto actually agree with it. I voted for a coalition of parties in the hopes that may start the process. It has already shown the contradictions of which I speak but I have little hope of the break up, hence honesty, ensuing.

Bravefish, Basia02 and fedupwithbrown have each made valid statements but until there is a political consensus, be it party, informal parliamentary grouping or electoral force of will, which takes on the vested banking and financial sector interests and which, I believe, includes the senior echelons of our civil service - precisely those people advising the senior politicians - there will be little change.

As Fools we are taking the only alternative route to a sensible future for so long as the madness persists. Cutting our own path by investing our pennies and talking about our investment experiences in order to help each other.

Every political party pays lip service to the interests of small businesses. Once in power it listens only to the big business boardrooms whilst keeping up the stream of palliative claptrap. Listening, that is, to those very establishment figures who have never had to get their hands either dirty or greasy in keeping their small business either in existence or growing. Small business owner, don't expect understanding government any time soon.

Join the conversation

Please take note - some tags have changed.

Line breaks are converted automatically.

You may use the following tags in your post: [b]bolded text[/b], [i]italicised text[/i]. All other tags will be removed from your post.

If you want to add a link, please ensure you type it as as opposed to

Hello stranger

To add your own comment, please login.

Not yet registered? Register now.