Magazine article Management Today

Making the Best of War and Peace

Magazine article Management Today

Making the Best of War and Peace

Article excerpt

Britain's is the UK's oldest, best-known maker of toy soldiers; it also caters for 'adult-imitative' fashions in farming and offices. Charles Darwent reports on the responsiveness that it takes to be big in the little people's market

'You know what children are like: as soon as they see something on TV they've got to have it. They see these soldiers engaged in peace-keeping activities all over the place and they want them.' Paul Webb is explaining why he started producing a range of plastic soldiers with pale blue helmets. Not that the children actually rang him. Watching the interests of these avid customers, and not wanting to be left behind, are equally avid retailers who quickly make their needs known to Webb.

Nervos belli, pecuniam infinitam, as they say. It's a dictum that might do well enough as a corporate motto for Britains, that felicitously-named firm of which Webb is managing director. To readers of the male sex and of a certain age, this name will probably bring a nostalgic tear to the eye: for Britain's oldest and best-known manufacturer of toy soldiers. In 1893 William Britain junior invented a method of manufacture known as 'hollow-casting', using a mixture of antimony and lead poured into moulds and rapidly poured out again. At a stroke, Britains -- and Britain -- stole the world toy soldier market from the Germans (hurrah), and has kept it for most of the succeeding century. Mafeking, Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, all were to be faithfully recorded on a scale of 1:32 in Britains' factories. Bosnia is simply the latest proof that Cicero knew his stuff, marketing-wise: there's lots of money to be made from the materials of war.

Well, most of the time, anyway. In fact, Britains' little squaddies have had their off-days over the past 100 years. Early in the Great War the firm, which was then based in Hornsey (it has since removed to Nottingham), produced an especially realistic mini-military mise en scene called the Exploding Trench, complete with teeny donating mortar bombs. Shortly thereafter, life chose to imitate art in a full-scale version of this tasteful plaything known as the Battle of the Somme. Sales of toy soldiers fell off sharply, and Britains wisely decided to turn its swords, quite literally, into ploughshares. From 1919, the firm was to run a line of die-cast farm models -- pigs, tractors, muck speaders, the lot -- in tandem with its dinky guardsmen and fusiliers.

As things were to turn out, this was just as well. In the mid-1950s, it was discovered that William Britain's hollow-cast soldiers were not simply ideologically suspect but (being made of lead) were poisonous as well. By the time Dennis Britain -- the last of the family -- sold out in 1983, moo-cows and manure wagons had grown to represent 90% of Britains' sales. Such soldiers as the firm still produced were made of inglorious extruded plastic.

The trouble with Britains' most famous product was that it had been, in the contorted argot of toy-marketeers, an 'adult imitation' commodity. 'Toys', says Webb, 'are all about topicality': when adults decide that war is a bad thing, in other words, they stop buying their offspring toy soldiers. Unhappily for Britains, this toy industry truism still holds good today. 'If you look at farming in the real world of 1993,' says Webb, mournfully, 'you'll find it's all about set-aside rules. We're world leaders in the range we offer, but we do have to recognise that the needs of children now are different. The company's speciality is in making scale models of real things. If the real world isn't bringing out new tractors, we can't just magic them up out of thin air.'

Webb's sales director, Barry Steer, adduces Britains' new Honda All-Terrain Vehicle -- that dislikeable breed of four-wheeled motorbike now to be seen on most British lowland farms -- as evidence in support of Webb's theory. Farmers' children ('oukr farm lines don't tend to have a huge client-base in the West End of London,' notes Steer) are discerning buyers. …

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