An interview with Britannia's CEO Mark Taylor and getting some insight into his time with Britannia.
Back in 2009, Jamie and I saw a massive gap in the market in the UK for all things to do with customs and international trade. We have spent all our careers in the freight forwarding industry and saw a mixed bag of companies who did not invest time into the intricacies of brokerage, duty management and customs compliance. They saw it as a vehicle to facilitate a border clearance to get products delivered to their clients on time.
A KPI for a freight forwarder was simply to get the container delivered at 9 o'clock. And that made their day good or bad. The core focus was not if customs declarations contained the right value for duty, if it was the right commodity code for the duty rate, if it had preference certification…. Etc. I could go on for hours and hours! We were, however, fortunate enough to be brought up in an environment, (albeit within the freight industry,) where it was recognised that adding value to the customer was vital, for both business maintenance, business growth and the success of the client we were serving. So, having that instilled in us virtually all of our careers, we translated that into our subject matter of customs and considered all the benefits that would arise, if a business existed in the country that:
Consulted like a consultant, on the scope of expertise that we were involved with (duty management).
Had a team of people with the core skill set and focus on a client's customs and duty requirements.
Have the expertise, both 3rd party and internally, for digitalisation and data management.
Those are the main criteria that in the main, didn’t reside in the freight forwarding industry, so we took a leap of faith, put the money where our mouths were and decided we were to set up a company that did all of the above. The key USP however was that we were completely neutral and independent from any freight forwarding activity, and we thought that by absolutely focusing on Customs and International Trade as a core competence, we passionately believed would create trust in the services that we provided, and I'm proud and happy to say 13 years later, that is the case and that's one of the main reasons that the Britannia journey has been successful.
What was your first ever job?
Whilst I was still in 6th form college studying for my A-levels, I got a job in a supermarket that no longer exists now, called Fine Fare. I worked there stacking shelves, not being very good at it, to be honest with you! But seriously, it did teach me one thing that's really important and I have carried it through with me for my whole career, my manager at the time asked me one question in my interview:
"Is the customer always right?"
and I said, "No, of course not."
"No," he said, "the customer is always correct."
That is the most important thing in business that I've been taught, even when they're wrong, they're right.
How did you go from the supermarket to the world of customs?
Well, that wasn't exactly a direct path. I was studying for my A-levels and I had a very keen hobby of playing table tennis. I played for Essex and England as a junior and my doubles partner, Steve, his Dad owned a shipping company! The time eventually came when the school masters called me into the office and said...
"Mark, you're not giving this the best attention, are you?
Perhaps it's best for all concerned if you look around for a job."
So, Steve contacted his Dad who said "There's a job going in my company as a Dock Runner for the imports department, would Mark like to turn up for an interview?" My interview was with a chap named Alan Collins, who incidentally, by the way, Alan's daughter is Gemma Collins! So I turned up to his interview, didn't know anything about shipping or customs, I just looked up in a book, saw and something called a 'Bill of Lading'.
"Right then, what's that? A 'title to goods'...that sounds interesting!"
So I sat there, said 'Bill of Lading' and for some reason he thought that was good and I got the job! My first job was going around to all the ports in the London area and picking up clearances, no such thing as computers in those days, and we were going from dock to dock picking up clearances and lodging them at all the depots. I learnt the trade of completing customs declaration on a typewriter, and although it was long-winded, it taught me in a lot more detail how to classify goods, how to complete customs declaration, to understand in real detail what we were doing. That really put me in good stead for the rest of my career.
Was there a 'Eureka' moment for you and Jamie?
Of course. Within the business we were both in, my role was to identify customers and offer them a 'Customs and Duty Healthcheck' (this was something I had developed whilst working there), work out through that:
where there was any risk
were they breaking the law?
were they compliant?
if there were opportunities for customs warehouse or reclassifying goods
And that is an essential business model that we carry through to Britannia. But the difference was, and our Eureka moment that Jamie and I had, was the freight company obviously wanted to develop and sell freight services. And ultimately the discerning customer, whilst I gave this presentation, would say
'Mark, this is a really good presentation, a very good proposition, a wonderful way to get freight through the back door, isn't it.'
And Jamie and I both passionately felt that if we carried on doing this, providing this sort of service, in a neutral and independent environment, actually it would develop more trust, more confidence in the services we provided, and it would ensure the clients didn't have invisible handcuffs around freight services that they may or may not want to continue working in by virtue of the services that we offered so therefore, they could get best value and assurance of compliance on specific topics of expertise we offered, but still retain the flexibility of choice throughout their freight purchasing, which was a massive difference in terms of what their aspirations could be.
So, where did the name Britannia come from?
One afternoon we were driving back from a client visit, and at this stage, we had already decided to set up a new business. Back in those days, we were just coming up to the marriage of William and Kate, and on the horizon was the Olympics, there was a lot of stuff pertaining to patriotism shall we say. Something very British about it all. And we were in this queue going past some road works, swearing and cursing that we were going to be late, and it was entitled 'Britannia Roadworks', and I turned to Jamie and said...
"There we are, we're going to call it Britannia."
And the logo, I actually stole the idea from the 2010 Brit Awards!
What is your favourite moment from Britannia history?
Lots of memorable moments, I suppose it was our first day at work! In a very strange environment, we were lucky enough to sign a contract with a very friendly freight forwarder who provided us with a table and a couple of chairs and a phone line. I used my mobile phone, and we bought a laptop so we could do some customs reporting and that was essentially it. Jamie unusually was sitting there waiting for something to happen - we weren't busy at all. And I was running around drumming up interest - that was a pivotal moment.
How have you found running a business?
It's been a learning curve from the very beginning. If I'm honest, our aspiration for setting the company up was to pay our mortgages and spend more time for me to learn to play golf, and for Jamie to play more golf, and that was a complete folly. We were most naive.
The biggest seismic change really started in 2016 when the UK decided to no longer be a part of the EU and we were going to leave. In simple figures, what we learnt straight away was that when we leave the EU, every movement of goods in and out of Europe would require a customs declaration, and prior to Brexit the increased volume of work went from approximately 50 million Customs Declarations a year in the UK to post Brexit 250 million.
That was a very interesting time, and we had to make some pretty quick business decisions, we figured that we would need 20-30 new staff, and indeed prior to that, we were fortunate enough to open up new office facilities in London Gateway.
So it's fair to say we underestimated to need tenfold because no one knew what was required. And shortly after that, everyone was working from home through the lockdown, which was a challenge in itself. Plenty of challenges, but we scaled up, we provided good continuous service for all of the clients and we quadrupled in size in 18 months, despite the challenges that Brexit and Covid bought us.
What would be your top tip for someone looking to start their own business like you and Jamie did?
Go with your dreams, go with that gut feeling, do it, and don't regret anything. If you feel passionate enough and you've got the opportunity, do it. If you've got that burning desire, and passion
and you think it's going to work...give it a go.