19/05/2015 06:43 BST | Updated 18/05/2016 06:59 BST

Getting Out and Being Global

Most owner-directors of companies will recall 2008 without much pleasure. I'm one of them. It was the year when the credit crunch bared its teeth, Lehman Brothers collapsed, and the global economy spiralled downwards. And as for 2009...Well, that was a write-off year for many small businesses.

But not for all. Actually, 2008 and 2009 were the years when some of the UK's most exciting international businesses started. Just take a look at the newly-published Sunday Times BT Business SME Export Track 100, which ranks Britain's top small and medium-sized enterprises (up to £25m turnover) by their recent rate of international sales growth.

One in seven of this 100 were founded in those two torrid years. Strikingly, the three top performing companies were all founded in 2008. Each one has grown their international sales at staggering levels over the past two years. And yet they couldn't be more different.

Oxford-based Cobalt Light Systems is a PhD-heavy university spin-out; the firm's machines are used in more than 65 international airports to scan the contents of drinks bottles and duty-free shopping to check for explosives. Exports now make up more than 70 per cent of Cobalt's business, and international sales hit £8.1m in 2014 - up an average of 328 per cent per year over the last two years. Its technology also has applications ranging from pharmaceutical manufacturing to breast cancer screening.

Acro Aero came about after a conversation in a pub between two engineers, Chris Brady and Andrew Lawler, about how to design a better fixed-back (i.e non-reclining) aircraft seat. Today, the Crawley-based company is making 3,000 seats per month for airlines such as KLM, and several US low-cost carriers. The company has its sights set on becoming an approved supplier for Boeing or Airbus. If you fly cattle class, these guys are trying to make your flights more comfortable.

Miura Systems is the creation of a serial entrepreneurial team who had already built and sold a public company, Dione plc, which made chip and PIN terminals. Miura is a key player in the mobile revolution; it's the world leader in mobile Point of Sale (mPOS) payment hardware. In a world rapidly moving towards contactless payment, the devices and terminals of this High Wycombe business are transforming the way we pay in shops, restaurants and, er, practically everywhere.

Of course, you don't need to start in a financial crisis to build a international business. Many of the companies are relatively mature businesses - more than 40 are at least 15 years old. Sports goods distributor Shiner was founded in 1936 as a builders merchant, and Wakefield-based manufacturer - Group Rhodes - can trace its lineage back to 1824.

But there's a buzz about companies that are global from day one. Shaun Pulfrey's Tangle Teezer patented hair brushing device was launched in the UK in 2008 but the home market was never going to be big enough. Holland was the company's first market. Global expansion was led by word of mouth and rapidly took off. "It was imperative that we got out and secured a foothold in these markets - and quick," says Pulfrey.

Several can claim world leadership in their particular niche: Accuracy International makes the world's finest sniper rifles; Dantec is a world leader in composite hoses.

OK, so 28 on this list are based in London. But it's a much more balanced British picture than you might expect. Successful exporters aren't hidebound by location. There's a risk management business and an oil services engineer in Hereford. A business in Cheshire is selling liquid goats' milk to China. Successful, high-growth exporters can be found across the UK: seven in Yorkshire; six in Scotland, six in Cheshire.

The 100 companies on the league table grew their international sales over the last two years by an annual average of 73 per cent. Their combined international sales of £705m.

Ultimately, the stories in the SME Export 100 demonstrate that the UK is continuing to spawn innovative, internationally-oriented companies that are capable of becoming world leaders - from subsea exploration to software, from smart materials to skateboards.

As UKTI kicks off its latest Export Week, there could not be better proof that the British "mittelstand" - specialist, global and mid-sized companies - really exists. And that great businesses can emerge from the deepest of recessions.

The Sunday Times BT Business SME Export Track 100 is supported by the Business is GREAT campaign. The campaign is also supporting Export Week (May 18-22). To find out more, visit