EXCLUSIVE: Sambro comes of age

It’s a milestone year for Sambro, with the Bury-based toy company celebrating 25 years in business and growth expected to hit nearly 40 per cent. CEO Paul Blackaby talks to ToyNews about what the next quarter century might bring, and why investing in Gen Z now will pay dividends later

Sambro has been in business since 1996. How has the company changed over time? And how would you describe Sambro now?

The business started out as a clearance house, selling across multiple categories
to UK retailers, but pivoted in 2006 to also become a licensed toy supplier, specialising in novelty toys, bags, and arts and crafts products, for brand owners seeking access to the wider UK retail sector. So, we’ve been on a transition for a number of years from what you would call a trading company, to what we are today – solely a toy company. We have 100 employees. Most of them are based in the northwest, in Bury, but we have offices in Amsterdam and Hong Kong as well. It’s also important to know that we’re a private-equity backed business.We were acquired in 2016 by a company called Elysian Capital.

I suppose if I had to define exactly what we are, I’d say we’re an innovative design- and product-led toy company that is quick to market and very easy to do business with, from both our customers’ and our suppliers’ perspectives.

How would you define “easy to do business with”?

We want to be a good partner to everyone we work with. We aim to have the sort of relationships where the suppliers can trust us, the customers can trust us, and the licensors can trust us. We want them to know that they’re working with somebody who has their best interests at heart. It’s particularly important with licensors; we’re using IP that has been invested in by them for many years, and if we take a classic property, like Winnie the Pooh, it’s vital that we use it in a way that Disney will be happy with, or they simply won’t allow us to use it in future. Of course, our customers need to trust us, too, from a product perspective. They need to know our products meet the right standards and are of great quality, because at the end of the day, the products are going to be used by children.

Last year, Sambro achieved 38 per cent growth. How was that done, and where was that growth concentrated?

To be honest, 2021 was a bounce-back year for us from 2020, which was disappointing. Like a lot of businesses, we were heavily impacted by Covid-19. I joined the business as CFO just over two years ago and during my first few weeks in the role, we didn’t get any stock in at all from China, because this strange thing was happening out there that no one fully understood. Last year was a good year, thankfully. We experienced high growth and high profits, and we’re expecting to grow by about the same amount in 2022. I estimate we’ll end up doing sales of about £70 million this year – around 38 per cent growth again.

In terms of where that growth is coming from, it’s across the range. We’ve taken a very significant market share in plush, for one thing; this year, we’re expecting to distribute over 8 million units of character plush toys. Our licensed goods are a large part of it, without a doubt. In particular, our Barbie range has been very successful, both here and in Europe. We hold major licenses for both Peppa Pig and Paw Patrol, and they have sold in enormous quantities.

Where do Sambro’s product ideas come from? Do you have a design team?

We have a designated product design team at our Bury office; they’re really creative. We also get ideas from what’s out there in the market, of course, and we buy in some ideas from standalone designers, both in the UK and the Far East. Our manufacturing partners in China are also pretty innovative, so ideas emanate from there as well. Ideally, though, we like the ideas to come from us, both for our licensed goods and our own brands – and we have an increasing number of those, like Battlestar Brawlers, Let’s Create and Puzzle Pals, which have sold over 35 million units worldwide since we launched the range in 2019.

How important is sustainability, both in the design and manufacturing processes and to the company overall?

We’re private equity-backed, so we’ve got great governance. Our investors want to drive ESG initiatives in our business, but the demand is also coming from other areas; our customers want green initiatives, as do our licensors. We have an ESG steering committee that sits once a month and has agreed an action plan for 2022, which includes about 10 different initiatives. Quite rightly, our investors think it will improve the value of the business, but from the Sambro leadership and management team’s perspective, it’s morally the right thing to do as well.

We’ve recruited a Sustainability Manager to the management team, who is helping to keep us on the straight and narrow. We’ve still got work to do. We are shipping large amounts of product from China to Europe, and that’s nobody’s idea of an environmentally friendly thing to do. But we are making grounds in terms of stuffing our soft toys with material that’s been recycled.

How does Sambro go about attracting Gen Z, and what qualities have you found they bring to the workforce?

First off, I’m extremely positive about people in this age bracket; I’ve got three of them at home, and if they’re typical of their generation, then Gen Z have certainly got their heads screwed on and know exactly what they want. Plus, they’re not prepared to put up with things that maybe I would have, 30 or 40 years ago.

How do we attract them? By offering them the chance to work with the likes of Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Cinderella… How we keep them is more challenging, as it is for most companies.

I think, first of all, we need to make sure that they know what part they’re playing
in our organisation, and exactly what’s expected of them. Secondly, we need to give them autonomy, and let them think for themselves. This generation doesn’t want to be given a list of tasks, they want to be given a perspective on something and then given the chance to try to solve any problems. Finally, we need to paint a picture of what the future is going to look like for them. With every single one of our people, we want to be able to say: this is what you’re doing now, and this is what we want you to do in the future as you progress.

We’re not perfect in every respect but we’re working on what we call our Talent Pipeline, identifying the people who we think will be particularly interesting for us as we move forward.

I know it’s a cliché, but people are the most important asset in our business. We use other people’s brands, other people’s manufacturing plants. We even rent our offices. So, our main assets are our people, they’re what ties everything together.

Where do you see Sambro in another quarter of a century?

Ideally, we’d be a mini Hasbro – that’s the big dream. But it’s probably some way away! In terms of the way we trade now, we have a strong focus on about 30 customers, both in the UK and overseas, and a very strong focus on value retail. Some of our bigger customers are discount retailer Action, which operates on the Continent, B&M and TJ Morris [Home Bargains], but we also want to further our e-commerce objectives. We’ve just recruited a very senior figure, Jon Hartley, who is leading our growth on Amazon, eBay and other marketplaces. It’s something the business has tried several times over the years and not succeeded in, so we’re keen to make it work. And we want to continue to be a very important partner to our key licensors. We don’t want hundreds of licenses because it’s just too difficult to manage. We have four or five key partnerships at this point [among them Disney, Mattel, Hasbro and Nickelodeon] and we want to focus on those.

It’s probably hard to choose, but do you have a favourite Sambro product?

Paw Patrol is our biggest seller, so the accountant in me would say anything Paw Patrol-branded. But when I look at our products, I’m also attracted to some of the more niche ones. There’s one called the Craft Caddy, which our team in Bury has developed, which is filled with rubbers and pencils and things like that. I’d have absolutely loved one when I was a kid. We’ve got a Peppa Pig branded one and a Paw Patrol one, and they just look great.

Thanks for speaking to us, Paul. Before you go, is there anything else you’d like to shout about?

I suppose the one thing that immediately springs to mind is the relaunch of Love & Hugs. It’s a health and beauty range, and Sambro’s own IP, which we’ll sell in the UK and also in the EU. We’re very excited about it. We’ve had a fantastic reaction to it when we’ve presented it to our customers – both the grocers and the value retailers. We’d just love it to do really, really well.

This feature appears in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of ToyNews. Read more here

About Tessa Clayton

A former Chief Sub of Red magazine, Tessa Clayton is the Digital Editor of Licensing.biz and ToyNews. As a freelance journalist she specialised in writing about parenting and family life, and has contributed to a wide variety of publications and websites including Tesco online, Mother & Baby, Livingetc, Junior, Boots Health & Beauty, Practical Parenting and babycentre.co.uk. Get in touch at tessa.clayton@biz-media.co.uk

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