Just a month after Dominic Jermey started his new job as chief executive of UK Trade and Investment, he spoke to Winnie Agbonlahor.
When I meet Dominic Jermey for lunch at Caxton Grill in Westminster in July, he’s been chief executive of UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) for just over a month. But far from coming across as uncertain in the role, Jermey appears to know exactly what he’s doing. He glances at the menu and promptly orders a Wagyu beef burger: this is plainly not a man who wastes any time. ‘Wagyu’, he explains, means that the cow has been massaged and fed beer before its death. “At least I know the cow was a happy cow, before it ceased to be happy when it became a happy burger,” he says. In his previous role as British ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jermey tells me, he was “distantly involved in re-introducing British beef exports to the UAE and the question about whether or not British beef could be described as Wagyu” – hence his knowledge of this esoteric topic.
Before I delve into his background and plans for UKTI, I have to ask: how does a man who studied literature and philosophy end up as an expert in business? He “mixed in a bit of economics” during his time at Cambridge University, he says. But his real entry into the world of trade and finance came earlier.
Before university, at 17 years old, he organised himself a gap year and secured a travelling scholarship from a livery guild in London, which sent him to Perugia for six months to learn Italian. For the other half, he wanted to teach for a charity in a school in southern Chile. But, he explains, “I didn’t have the money to go, so I wrote to companies that invested in Chile and asked them if they’d like to pay me to go.”
In the end, global financial advisory group Rothschild agreed to give him £800, covering his fare and some pocket money, as part of its corporate social responsibility work. He thanked the firm for the financial injection, and asked for a holiday job. He got one. “That also introduced me to banking and business,” he says. I can’t imagine any company paying for someone’s travels nowadays, I say. What did the company get out of it? “I don’t know!” he responds, adding that “in those days corporate responsibility was much more random, whereas it’s more focused now.”
As I’m about to find out whether his kids have inherited his go-getting attitude, our starters arrive: pickled cauliflower florets; sugar tubes filled with beetroot pannacotta; parmesan madeleines ; spicy prawn toasts; and deep-fried crispy pork balls.
All these nibbles have one thing in common: they’re like nothing I’ve ever tasted before. I’m especially surprised by the beetroot dish – and my intrigue is shared by Jermey, who describes it as “a bit too avant garde for me”, adding that it is “definitely really sweet, but fun”.
As we enjoy the food, he tells me about his family: his wife is an eye surgeon, and they have two kids. Although the children are only young, they’ve already gained from their parents’ international life styles: his son was six and his daughter five when the family moved to the UAE. They went to an English language school, whilst learning Arabic, now “have lots of friends from all over the world”, and are likely to “pick up the travel bug from their dad and their mum.”
His wife and kids are on holiday and due to join their dad back in London soon, but Jermey tells me he’s not sure whether their “small London terraced house” will have enough space for all their belongings, which are being shipped back. It will certainly be a big change, as the ambassador’s residence – his family home for the past four years – holds “about 100 to 120 people inside, and 500 people for a sit-down meal in the garden. It was a really big garden!”
The space, he explains, is necessary because “ambassadors have lots of business people coming through”. Every year, he’d welcome between 8,000 and 10,000 to his house for a range of “events that showcase British exports”. One such show, he recalls, aimed to “showcase British automotive expertise”, and involved a variety of cars as well as one “very large, beautifully-illuminated engine” exhibited in his garden. “I remember it very clearly,” he says. “I’ve never seen an engine look quite as awesome as this did.”
Our conversation strays away from business and trade to his travel adventures – in some 56 countries – and his languages: he speaks Spanish, Urdu, Italian and “some basic Arabic”. But he gently moves the conversation on to UKTI: “We’re an organisation in over 100 markets, and at the moment we’re supporting well over 40,000 UK businesses to do the sort of things overseas they wouldn’t be able to do without our help,” he says.
UKTI’s workforce is based all around the world, and includes “a mixture: people brought in from the private sector with specialist knowledge in areas such as legal, financial, services engineering and advertising; people on contracts; and long-term civil servants – often with a business background, like me,” Jermey says. Their main focus is coaching companies, over 90% of which are SMEs, in how to boost exports. This doesn’t just help businesses broaden their markets, he says, but also seems to improve their general model. “We’ve got well-proven statistics that exporters are economically more robust, more profitable, and often more competitive than non-exporters.”
So, ideally, every company would also be exporting? He sighs, laughs and exclaims: “I wish!” The UK needs to do better: in May alone, the UK’s trade deficit was £2.4bn. UKTI is doing well against its own targets: it announced last month that the UK attracted the highest amount of inward investment since records began in 2013-14, up 14% from the previous year. But it wants to see exports nearly double by 2020. This means a hefty increase, from £557bn annually to around a trillion.
To hit this target, “we need tens of thousands of British business women and men to take that decision to export, but also the whole of government – the Ministry of Defence with the defence companies, health department with pharma companies, transport department with transport infrastructure developers, you name it.” Is he getting the necessary cross-departmental support? “We find departments are increasingly on board,” he says diplomatically.
As our mains arrive, we take some time to admire the beautifully-presented dishes: my monkfish is served on a small bed of cannellini bean puree, alongside some whole beans, pickled gem lettuce, roast garlic and parsley veloute. The fish is tender and a side of spinach, suffused with chilli, is delicious. It’s safe to say that Jermey’s Wagyu burger is also a success, for he describes it as “fantastic”, “very good” and “quite something”. Whilst we tuck in, I learn that Jermey likes to run to work, taught his kids skiing in Dubai, and got into triathlons in the UAE. One triathlon involved cycling around a Formula 1 track, which was “just an amazing feeling”. Asked what his time was, he merely laughs and comments: “I describe myself as a slow triathlete”. But given that his commute from Balham to Westminster involves a five-mile run in 30 minutes, I imagine he’s not all that slow.
Time has caught up with us and, while I order a coffee to finish off the meal, Jermey takes a look at his watch and disappears – heading for his next appointment. In restaurants, as on the racetrack, he’s not one to waste any time.