Exporting success is so often dictated by the motivation of the generation of business leaders, so guess who is set to become our next Gen-eXport? History tells us that success in exporting often depends on the motivation of business leaders and managers. For instance much of Australia’s success as an exporting nation in the late 20th century was due to the efforts of the post-war immigrants who ended up leading successful companies.
The names Abeles, Parbo, Adler come to mind for example. Many of these leaders come to Australia from war-torn Europe with no assets (and often with no English) but with a range of business contacts in their home markets, market experience and corporate savvy.
So who are the next generation of exporters that will lead Australia for our next stage of prosperity? When the post-war generation move on to that business lounge in the sky and when the baby-boomers retire to their lucrative superannuation and part-time directorships. Will Generation-X fill their shoes to become “generation export”?
New data from Austrade/Sensis gives us some indication. Of all small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) who are exporters, 42% of businesses have been in the game for more than 20 years. This compares to 6% who have been around for less than five years, and 25% who have been around for less than 10.
Why is this so? Because you need a bit of experience to compete in global markets (to get used to swings in commodity prices, exchange rates and so on) and also to build strong relationships with your overseas business partners so you can survive dramatic events like the Asian financial crisis or the dot-com crash.
But there’s another implication to gaining export experience. This also means that the average age of the proprietor of an exporting SME tends to be older that your local domestic businesses.
According to the research, 39% of all exporting SMEs were classic baby-boomers aged in their 50s, and a further 27% were aged over 60. By contrast, Generation-Xers made up smaller numbers, with 20% of all SME exporters in their 40s and 13% were 30-somethings. Gen-Ys were 1% and Gen-Zs are still watching The Wiggles.
Should we be worried? Not necessarily, as it is just a matter of Gen-Xers getting the experience to run exporting companies. This will occur through generational change as the baby boomers pass on the baton. In addition, there are many reasons why Gens X and Y and Z will be OK to lead the charge.
First, the internet has allowed many smaller businesses to export straightaway, which has opened up global marketing opportunities to SMEs.
Second, attitudes to entrepreneurship and global markets are very positive according to newspoll surveys about how young people regard trade and global branding.
Third, there are plenty of global role models in popular culture that youngish Australians can look up to.
Take music. Gone are the days when you had to get a gig on Countdown (as great as it was) to get better known in Sydney and Melbourne. Now Australian bands simply go global.
In many ways they have technology, but also a few pioneers like the Easybeats, LRB, INXS, AC/DC, and Midnight Oil who helped pave the way, as well as Molly Meldrum’s ability to network internationally.
The same thing applies in popular entertainment (the Aussie takeover of Hollywood) or the Kangaroo mafia running riot in corporate circles in London, New York, Bangkok or Dubai.
So have no fear, Generation-X is here and is ready to become the export generation. But Generation-Y – just watch this space.
*Tim Harcourt is chief economist of the Australian Trade Commission and author of Beyond Our Shores.
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