Tom Athron, chief executive of Fortnum & Mason, has urged Rishi Sunak’s government to seal a deal with Brussels on post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, saying that without the agreement it is “almost impossible” for food retailers to export to the EU.
Speaking to the Financial Times in Hong Kong during a scoping tour for the department store’s Asian expansion, Athron said the deal, expected as soon as this week, was needed for UK-EU relations to progress.
“Once that gets sorted, then actually the rest of the conversation around Britain’s trading relationship with Europe will begin to improve,” Athron said.
The comments underline rising business concerns about the deal, which has sparked hopes of a reconciliation with the EU on the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Sunak has been attempting to quell opposition among Eurosceptic Tory MPs and Northern Ireland’s unionists this week in order to get the agreement over the line.
Food exporters to the EU have been among the hardest hit business casualties of Brexit. Fortnum & Mason was forced to temporarily halt its Europe deliveries — about 10 per cent of its business — as a result, said Athron.
The government needed to “invest some time improving its relationship with the EU,” which was only possible once the “architects of Brexit” were out of the picture, he added.
“The EU were always going to struggle to deal with them . . . Rishi is sort of one step towards that. And then whoever leads the next government I suspect, there will be another step,” Athron said. “No one wins when you can’t export like this. The EU doesn’t win, the UK doesn’t win, we would be much better off finding a way through this.”
Fortnum & Mason hoped to kick-start an Asia expansion in 2019 when it established its first physical flagship in the region in one of Hong Kong’s flashiest locations, the K11 shopping mall beside Victoria Harbour.
Hong Kong was previously a magnet for mainland luxury shoppers but was shut to tourists during the pandemic, so the family-owned department store was forced to pause the plan until China’s reopening last December.
Athron said the brand is weighing new stores in Singapore and Macau, and would survey data from its recently opened online store on China’s digital marketplace, Tmall, before deciding on how to enter the mainland.
Asian and Chinese customers are responsible for about a third of the company’s international transactions, and their presence at their London stores tripled in January compared with the month before, Athron added.