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The Russo-British Chamber of Commerce celebrates its 100th anniversary

I have the pleasure of interviewing Trevor Barton, Executive Director of the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce located in London, England. We discuss the history of the organisation and the scope of its operations, as well as address the current economic developments between Russia and the United Kingdom.

Haneul: Can you tell us a little about the RBCC and your role in the organisation?

Trevor: The Russo-British Chamber of Commerce was founded 100 years ago, in 1916, which, when you think of history, was quite an interesting time for a group of business people to decide that it would be useful to have a Chamber of Commerce between Britain and Russia. The Chamber has stayed pretty true to its original aims, which were to encourage and promote trade and investment in both directions between Great Britain and Russia.

That has survived through quite a number of political and other circumstances in both countries — including two global wars —and the Chamber did not fold or stop operating, although there were periodically some contractions in the amount of business being done.

Those who have kept the Chamber going all those years have managed to do so throughout those difficult times. We’re very proud that we’ve been around for a century and that we continue to operate in a bilateral fashion. We encourage Russian businesses to come to the UK to the same extent that we encourage British businesses to go into Russia.

We’ve got somewhere between 300-400 members, and it is a strong, enthusiastic membership. Regarding my role, I am the Executive Director, the most senior role in the executive among approximately 14 staff across our three offices in London, Moscow and St. Petersburg. Although we have offices in these key centres, we also reach out to regions throughout UK and Russia.

Recently, I’ve travelled to Manchester, Liverpool, Aberdeen, Peterborough, and Ipswich to speak to groups of large companies and SMEs who are looking for new export markets for their goods, and we try to enthuse them with the idea of considering going into Russia, while pointing out the realities of doing business there. 

So much of what we say is very positive, but we are also realistic. My colleagues in Russia do a similar job of talking to Russian companies. My job as the Executive Director is to make sure all this works effectively and our members get value for their membership. Before I took this job, I was actually on the Chamber’s non-executive board for about 9 years, so I know the RBCC very well.

Haneul: Can you give us a few examples of events that you have hosted? What were some of the key focal points of your discussions and who attended?

Trevor: We ran a Christmas cocktail event a few days ago, and for events like these we always have a discussion panel beforehand. We hosted Sergey Cheremin from the Moscow City Government, in addition to a senior representative from the organisation London and Partners that works with the Mayor’s office in London, as well as representatives from the London Stock Exchange and the London Chamber of Commerce. I moderated that discussion and I think that there were a lot of positive feelings within it.

Everyone is very conscious of the negative publicity that Russia attracts, and what we do, in terms of talking to companies at our events and individually, is give balance to the perception of Russia by emphasising the business opportunities that still exist. It’s very well known that there are sanctions between the EU-US and Russia, and there have been counter-sanctions imposed by the Russian government.

Our message to people is that they should certainly consider doing business or investing in Russia and, as part of that, check whether or not their businesses will be sanctioned. Generally, there is a good chance that the sanctions, which are quite narrowly focused, will not apply.

People on that panel emphasised a rather positive stance regarding the Russian economy going forward. The Russian economy has been in tough financial straits for 2-3 years now. Sanctions have had an effect, but oil prices more so. The value of the ruble has affected ruble-earning Russians’ buying power. However, the picture shared by the panel and ourselves is quite positive in the medium term.

Mr Cheremin pointed out a lot of interesting investment projects in Moscow. The London Stock Exchange was also quite optimistic about Russian companies raising funds in London again in due course. Certainly, London & Partners and the London Chamber of Commerce also reflected positively as well as realistically about the flow of trade and investment in both directions.

Haneul: Have they been facilitating this with Special Investment Contracts (SICs)? I remember that they began doing so in 2015…

Trevor: Yes, but initiatives such as these are only one small part of the picture. I think that SICs have been successful to a certain extent, but what’s more important is the big, overall picture. It is important that Russia is seen as investor-friendly in a more general sense, and we try to make people aware of the opportunities, for example, in the regions.

There is a perception that Russia is only Moscow and St. Petersburg, but although they are very important centres for industry, population, and for fast-moving consumer goods (FMCGs), Russia in fact has some fifteen key cities with a million or more population. These are very significant places, which are a bit more difficult for companies and investors to reach, but exporters and investors will not face the competition in those cities that they would find in Moscow or St. Petersburg, so they bring more opportunities.

Equally, as to Russians coming in this direction, we’re starting to see some of Russia’s high-tech companies and entrepreneurs show real interest in setting up subsidiaries and investments in the UK. UK banks can provide loan capital for SMEs to boost their businesses, which may not be available in the same way in Russia. So, now we’re not just seeing wealthy Russians buy houses and educate their children in UK, but Russians also starting to use the UK as a favourable base outside Russia for their international operations.

Haneul: In the post-Brexit era, how will Russian and British businesses deepen their ties, and what will occur once Britain ventures onward to new opportunities around the world?

Trevor: This is, of course, crystal ball gazing, and I can’t predict how Russo-British trade will develop post-Brexit; also of course nobody knows yet quite when Brexit will actually happen. However, there has naturally been a lot of talk at our events about its potential implications. I think generally it is perceived that it will encourage British companies to look for new export markets and in that way open up opportunities. Certainly, Russia should very much promote itself as a good market for the export of goods if and when EU markets become perhaps somewhat less attractive for British companies.

That’s not the only dynamic that’s happening because at the same time, Russia itself continues to develop as an increasingly lucrative market for British goods. The Russian middle class has good buying power, despite some issues with the value of the rouble in recent years. Furthermore, Russia is developing its infrastructure services, roads, rails, and warehousing networks, and there is a huge rise in E-commerce in Russia. 

The UK has great expertise and experience in these areas.  So, as some markets will perhaps become less attractive to UK exports, we hope that regional markets across Russia will become more accessible and attractive and that more opportunities will emerge. I think that the two elements will come together and that there is a good chance that Brexit will play into a wider picture of Great Britain and Russia doing more business together.

An increase in trade and investment in both directions is certainly something that we at the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce would like to see. 

For more information on the activities of the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce, kindly visit: www.rbcc.com

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