Founders Series Q&A

Nicola Alexander, Managing Director of Bethan Customs Consultancy,

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Nicola Alexander, Founder and Managing Director, Bethan Customs Consultancy Ltd

What does your company do?

We are a team of friendly, experienced customs consultants with expertise across all areas of customs, logistics and supply chain.

Supporting businesses in international trade and compliance in all areas, we help our clients navigate the complexities of HMRC Authorisations and customs regimes through business support and mentoring, either on-site or remotely. We can assist in applying for HMRC Authorisations, offer support for audits, disputes and investigations. We also offer a range of up-to-date training courses, to ensure our clients are well-versed in the latest legislation that affects their ability to trade internationally.

Uniquely in this sector we are completely independent, and can therefore offer impartial and unbiased support to our clients.

What do you do there / what is your role?

As founder and Managing Director, I head up a team of customs specialists. I also look after the strategic and commercial aspects of the business, with a clear focus on business development – it’s important for us to position the business in such a way that our service offerings are tailored to our clients’ individual requirements.

I still keep a hand in with the day-to-day business operations, and ensure I am available to support all the members of my team to carry out their roles effectively.

If you started the company, what was the aha moment that led to the company founding?

Following the birth of my second child, I was considering my next career move when I was approached by a number of contacts to carry out some consultancy work. As demand grew for my services and specialist knowledge, I identified a gap in the market for an independent customs consultancy, and driven by the conviction that there was a better way of helping businesses to navigate the ever-evolving world of importing and exporting, I established Bethan Customs Consultancy in 2015.

Where did you get assistance when you started?

I benefited from support through Elevator and Business Gateway – I took part in a number of business start-up sessions and courses, and was allocated a Business Adviser.

I was also very grateful for the support of my family while I was establishing a new business and bringing up a young family simultaneously.

Give us a brief history of the growth of the company

I started out working part-time from my spare room. However, as Bethan’s reputation grew, thanks to word-of-mouth recommendations, so did our client list. In March 2017 I took the decision to scale up to meet demand, moved into rented office space in Oldmeldrum, and took on my first member of staff.

Rapidly out-growing our first office, we moved into our current premises – a brand new purpose- built office suite in Oldmeldrum’s Colpy Business Park just over two years ago. Boasting panoramic views of Bennachie, as well as a training and conference venue, it’s a world away from my spare room!

Since then we have expanded our team with a number of key appointments and internal promotions. We now employ 6 members of staff including a Business Development Manager, Customs Manager, Customs Consultant and two Compliance Executives, and service an ever-increasing range of clients across the UK.

Have you taken any external funding? If so from who and when?

No – it was very important to me to launch and grow Bethan without any external funding, as I had a very clear vision for the business, and wanted to ensure I could be true to that vision.

So, what does it look like now with regard to staff and turnover?

Our reputation for providing clear and practical advice, as well as training and on-going support to businesses has secured us UK-wide contracts with clients across a diverse range of sectors, from oil and gas to food and drink. 

During the past year we have secured 15 new contracts (including contract extensions and expansions) across both retained clients and specialist project work.

Prior to lockdown we developed and ran a suite of training courses, from general ‘How to import and export’ sessions, to more in-depth courses on AEO, Customs Warehousing and Classification and Valuation. These training sessions were always very well-attended (sold-out in many cases), and we were thrilled to receive fantastic feedback from attendees. The breakfast rolls were always a welcome addition!

Over the years we have also extended our geographic reach. Currently we work with clients the length and breadth of the UK, from the North of Scotland to the South coast of England.

Financially we are in a very strong position. Our projected turnover for the financial year 2019 – 2020 is up 69% from the previous year, based on committed work.

Over the past 12 months we have grown and developed our team to meet client demand for our services. We now have 6 members of staff, with our most recent recruit having joined us during lockdown. We have also promoted two members of staff internally.

What’s the difference between when you started and now in your marketplace?

Initially our clients were predominantly drawn from the energy sector, specifically oil and gas. However, over recent years as our reputation has spread, we have expanded our client base to secure clients in the food and drink, automotive, construction and retail sectors, and now work with clients the length and breadth of the UK.

What’s more, now that our team has expanded, we boast a wider range of expertise in different areas of customs compliance and supply chain management. This enables us to take on a greater variety, and indeed volume of work across multiple sectors.

We’ve definitely noticed a cultural change in business since our launch 5 years ago – customs compliance is now taken far more seriously. With changes to the UCC and our exit from the EU, people are looking for smarter ways to do business, and they are increasingly looking for our support in that endeavour.

What is your target market – Who is buying your product / service?

Our target market is very broad – essentially it’s anyone who is in business, and imports and/or exports goods.

We work with businesses of all shapes and sizes, from a one-man band to a multinational company – we can and do support businesses of any scale in all sectors.

We work closely with financial teams, and those concerned in the supply chain of the business.

Uniquely in this sector we are completely independent, and can therefore offer impartial and unbiased advice.

What is your background?

Following a brief foray into the world of horse racing in Dorset, I returned to my North-east roots in 2000, and embarked on my career with an oil service company working in logistics and customs for 8 years. During this time I was assigned a project to review customs operation for the whole of the UK, whilst still carrying out my logistics role, and subsequently promoted to Senior Customs Co-ordinator.

Ready to embrace a new challenge, I joined an offshore drilling contractor as a Customs Supervisor, before heading up a Customs Consultancy team with a freight forwarding firm. I left this role after the birth of my son. And the rest is history!

What are your goals for your business?

My goals are quite straightforward – I aim to continue to grow and service our clients with a happy, dedicated team. We are very much in this for the long-game. I am very proud to run a family business which embodies the values of honesty, integrity and reliability, so while we would like to grow the business further, I am determined that this will never be at the expense of our core values.

What are your biggest current challenges?

In recent months our team, like many others, has adapted to working remotely.  While this has been a challenge at times, we have all coped really well with this new way of working. It has also brought about opportunities to improve and streamline the business, and proved to us that we can fully support our clients by working remotely, with no change to the high standards of service that we offer.

Customs compliance is a fast-paced sector where information and legislation changes quickly. While this could be seen as a challenge, it is second-nature to us. We thrive on staying ahead of the curve to support our clients.

What has been the biggest challenge so far?

I think the biggest challenge I’ve encountered was when I reached the crossroads of securing a sufficient volume of business to justify scaling up the company. After much deliberation I took the decision to employ my first member of staff and move into rented business premises in Oldmeldrum. That was certainly a leap of faith, but it has paid off!

What do you do outside work?

Life outside work – what’s that?!

Whenever I do have some time to myself, my priority is spending time with my kids. Aged 6 and 10 they are great fun, and we’re never happier than when we’re singing, dancing and generally larking around!

I also take great pride in my role as a trustee of local charity, Kayleigh’s Wee Stars, a charity very close to my heart. Set up by Jonathan and Anna Cordiner, following the loss of their 26-month old daughter, Kayleigh, the charity provides financial support to families who have a child with a terminal diagnosis.

What do you know now that you wished you had known earlier?

I don’t really consider anything a mistake, as such! More of a learning opportunity – all part of absorbing knowledge and gaining experience ‘on the job’ when establishing a successful business.

What is the secret to good leadership?

Realising that you can’t do everything yourself! So it’s vital to build a team you can trust – that way you can resist the temptation to micro-manage. I would say it definitely helps to be a people person too. We spend lots of time at work, so it’s important to enjoy your team’s company, and of course the banter must be of a high standard!

How can the Scottish start-up/entrepreneur landscape be improved to help more businesses start up and grow?

I think there is a lot of information and support out there, but it’s not necessarily that accessible. It would be really useful to have one umbrella organisation that would sign-post businesses to the relevant information and support for their specific business and circumstances. That would prevent the one-size-fits-all approach that is sometimes the case with start-up support.

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