Q&A with Laura Cohen, Chief Executive, British Ceramic Confederation

1. The British Ceramic Confederation represents the collective interest of all sectors of ceramic manufacturing. What do you see as the biggest opportunities across the industry right now?

Like many UK manufacturing sectors, the picture is mixed in the ceramic industry at the moment. Some individual companies are faring incredibly well. Notably, those operating in the heavy clay side of the sector, involved in residential construction are benefitting from a continued boost in house building, while some other manufacturers are enjoying strong export markets, especially in America.

2. ……and the biggest threats/challenges?

For some ceramic manufacturers, elements beyond their control can have a massive impact on their businesses. For example, regulatory, customs and tariff changes connected to Brexit, and ongoing uncertainty around international trade wars. These issues have the potential to threaten the survival of some of our British ceramic manufacturers. Tariff decisions taken in other countries can effectively close markets, and Brexit is curbing confidence across the UK economy and tying up cash in stocks of raw materials and finished goods for EU export at the moment. Our ceramic manufacturers want to make a success of Brexit but some investments have been pushed back.

3. The British Ceramic Confederation works on key policy areas, what is the focus for 2019?

Brexit is the main focus for business, and for trade representative bodies in 2019. We are working with members and politicians to do all we can to make a success of it.

This involves strengthening links with Government, influencing the developing policy and regulatory frameworks, and extending our sector’s international trade capabilities.

While Brexit dominates the agenda, it is not the only issue facing our sector. We have other major challenges in terms of technological innovation, skills, and productivity, and manufacturing in a low carbon future.

4. You have been enormously engaged with Brexit and what this means for the industry. What are you expecting to happen?

Three years ago, I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the situation we now find ourselves in. Having any sort of expectation about what is going to happen in the current political arena is, unfortunately, a futile exercise. However, we have a strong track record on Brexit issues in being able to plan for, respond to and influence as things develop.

We focus on representing our members’ concerns at every opportunity, the outcomes of Brexit are critical, and we are working to protect their interests.

More than half the sector’s exports go to the EU, and we have been engaging with ministers, MPs, officials, and media, calling for parliamentary consensus to avoid no deal and provide some much-needed certainty for everyone.

If we leave without a deal, for example, tableware will have an extra 12% import tariff into the EU, eroding the margins for our members. Additionally, agreements with some of our biggest non-EU markets like South Korea, Japan, and Canada, all currently covered by EU trade agreements, have not been secured. If access to these markets is compromised, even temporarily, ceramic exports will suffer and many jobs will suddenly become less viable.

5. You have over 100 members, from diverse angles of the trade, what is the greatest value of membership to these organisations?

In the last decade, ceramic manufacturing in the UK has grown, this includes everything from bricks, clay roof tiles, and clay drainage pipes, to toilets and wall tiles.
The sector is incredibly diverse and also covers manufacturers of technical ceramics, anything from artificial hips to aircraft components and refractories – the linings for high-temperature processes.
To maintain its share of the global market over the next few years the sector must continue to grow, to create more jobs and contribute more to the economy.
Our members value our representation on critical issues for their businesses. These vary from company to company and include topics such as trade, energy, and emissions, health, and safety, funding for innovation, employment, minerals extraction, etc. We represent their collective interests in discussions and negotiations with Government and regulators, raising the profile of the sector.

6. You are speaking in the Plenary Session at the Ceramics UK conference about the UK Ceramic’s Market, can you give us an indication of what you will be focusing on?

I will discuss the growing opportunities for the sector on a global stage, the challenges around Brexit, and the connectivity with other critical manufacturing sectors like automotive, aerospace and energy.

Networking within our sector and with others in related industries is vital for future innovation and scientific advances.

7. What are you most looking forward to about the Ceramics UK 2019 show?

This event is one of a kind in terms of bringing together the wider ceramics community under one roof. It will be great to see innovative, like-minded businesses sharing their ceramic solutions and hopefully growing the sector. For me, it’s about connecting with new people and sharing my passion for our diverse and skilled British ceramic manufacturers.