November 21, 2023

The Australian companies transforming imports and exports

Forced to think fast and smart, Australia’s importers and exporters have emerged from challenging times better placed to take advantage of increasing opportunity.

After several years facing down the challenge of tougher trading conditions, Australian importers and exporters have emerged smarter, with new business models, new equipment and technology and, in some cases, a far-sighted forward-planning mindset – sometime up to five years or more.

Shara Tatam, NAB Trade and Working Capital Specialist, says Australian importers and exporters have done it tough the past few years, but also “used challenges as catalysts to improve their practices”.

“Now that those challenges are coming off, they’re ready to take advantage, coupled with the efficiencies they’ve built into their business.”

Resilience opens up opportunity

The past few years, Tatam states, have been all about building “risk mitigation, and efficiencies … and now there’s a lot of opportunities coming along for Australian businesses”.

Tackling these challenges has been front of mind for NAB customers. “Our conversations have been all about how to manage risk, how to control margins and how to overcome problems like labour shortages,” Tatam says.

“And these are complex problems. For regional and agricultural businesses, for example, even if you can get the labour, housing becomes another huge challenge.”

According to Jackie Cooper, General Manager of NAB Trade and Working Capital, some agricultural and manufacturing businesses have responded to labour shortages by bringing forward their investments in machinery and plant by three to five years and adjusting to a shrunken talent pool by re-allocating resources to productive equipment.

“They’ve adapted how they balance their finance,” she explains. “There might be a greater capital outlay, but they’re not posting an expense to the bottom line thereafter.”

Sometimes that requires a mindset shift, planning equipment replacement or upgrades around business cycles and emerging technology.

“There are plenty of industries where face-to-face interaction will always be necessary,” Cooper says, “but with the shift to mechanisation and the adoption of AI, businesses are now investing in these with a five-year timeline to pay off, or less.”

Fresh seafood is a good example of an industry that saw its business model shaken up, Tatam says. The fast-paced industry runs on tight turnaround schedules to core markets. With reduced air freight volume and markets closing access overnight, exporters quickly learnt new ways to connect with peers, source new buyers and conduct due diligence, and overhaul their operating and logistical models.

While there hasn’t been a universal model followed by every industry and business, responding to labour shortages, supply chain issues and other hurdles has grown the resilience of the business community in general, both NAB bankers say.

What’s emerged on the other side are stronger individual businesses with broader buyer networks and deeper skillsets and capital stock. Industries overall have become more resilient.

“Now we’re seeing shipping times reduce, the cost of shipping come down and labour shortages starting to come off,” Tatam says. “That’s going to set those businesses up for a new growth period.”

Breaking new markets with specialised support

In these new pastures, the grass is definitely greener, according to conversations NAB business bankers and trade and working capital specialists are having with importers and exporters.

“The opportunity is all about new markets,” Cooper says. “Whether that’s finding and accessing new Asian markets, exploring Europe or the USA, or taking advantage of the new UK Free Trade Agreement, our businesses have learnt the skills to break new markets.

“As Australia’s largest business lender, we’re experienced in tailoring solutions to meet customers’ needs. Whether that be FX risk management, trade and working capital, equipment finance or business lending.”

Tech and consumer trends ripening

Both new and established importers and exporters are also taking advantage of emerging technology and evolving consumer preferences.

Sustainability, for example, is a booming field that reaches across industries.

“We’re seeing importers and exporters finding all kinds of opportunities in sustainability,” Tatam says. “There’s plenty of interest in importing to convert or replace diesel equipment, for example. But now local businesses have begun producing their own hydrogen-powered heavy plant.

“And with the depth of international energy supply chains, our mining and downstream industries – including batteries – are looking for investment to set up export opportunities.”

Health and wellness are also top priorities for consumers.

“The consumer is more conscious of what they’re putting into their body, and they’re willing to spend to ensure a better quality of life,” Tatam says.

This is where Australia’s hard-won reputation for quality comes to the fore.

“Buyers and suppliers really do respect Australian businesses – they’ve got a great reputation,” Tatam says.

“And that Australian brand; to international markets it means quality, safety, reliability. We’re respected as a trading partner – people want to buy Australian.”

But if that’s not quite enough to get a deal over the line, Tatam says that NAB business bankers are always ready to support importers and exporters.

“I always advise customers to give us a call when a problem comes up, whatever the issue. With NAB, you get a team of thousands across the network, bringing their specialisations together.”

“It’s not just about help with hedging FX risk, financial advice or assistance dealing with new suppliers or buyers. It’s bringing it all together holistically. We’ve got the experience and the breadth of knowledge to help in all kinds of situations.”

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