Bridging the gap

Over the last 18 months, there has been change aplenty at John Crane with new ownership and management, retirements and appointments and the creation of new branches of the company. Katie Roberts visited the Northampton HQ to find out what's happening with the wooden toy manufacturer...
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A lengthy career in the toy industry doesn’t seem to have dulled John Crane’s new sales and marketing director’s enthusiasm for the business, as he takes on his latest challenge. Having started out in sales at Waddingtons, Keith Elmer then spent over 25 years at buying groups Concorde and Youngsters.

A short spell at Tomy in the operations and processes department affirmed his love of the indies and a preference for sales and marketing roles. Elmer explains: “If you cut me in half, I would have the word ‘INDIE’ running through me like a stick of rock.”

He continues: “Of course, there will always be a place for the multiples, but independent retailers make a high street in my opinion. They give towns character and personality and often offer a different range of product for the consumer.”

This enthusiasm for smaller retailers moved Keith from Tomy to John Crane in April last year, as he decided he wanted to see out his working life in a company that had a synergy with such businesses.

At the wooden toy manufacturer, Elmer took over the role of sales and marketing director from Anthony King, who completed his impressive 24 years at the company as its financial director, before retiring in July.

As Elmer joined John Crane, its directors were preparing for sale and the transaction was finalised in January this year. The buyer, T. Cox and Son, has its background as a newspaper wholesaler with no experience in toys, but it brings a wealth of business experience, which the team hopes will aid something of a modernisation of the firm.

Throughout the transition, eponymous boss, John Crane has retained his position as MD and the two men have worked closely with the new chairman to ensure while new staff are being bought in and business strategies are shifting, the essence of the company remains the same and the ‘magic’ that has made the company successful is preserved.

Alongside his official role, Elmer feels one of his key responsibilities during his time at the company is to bridge a gap. He says: “I’m really enjoying setting the company up for the future. John and I are acting as the overlap between old and new regimes to smooth any potential cracks before they appear.”

One of the major changes has been to encompass the firm’s PR and marketing within the parent company and in March, the new owners added Aspen PR to the JCL portfolio of businesses.

Aspen PR was set up in conjunction with its new account director, Helen Davis and while John Crane is the agency’s main client, there is a number of other toy related businesses on the client list, which is continuing to grow.

Once Aspen was up and running, the first project on the agenda was to update the company’s website. The new site serves a consumer and retailer function. The consumer site has been streamlined and navigation made easier and the trade site now allows retailers to order online.

Davis says: “All of our retailers are now set up with passwords and the ordering facility is proving very popular with those who are using it. We are now even offering a fast ordering system, allowing customers to either repeat previous orders or order using the product code. I’d like the site to be as efficient as possible for our retailers.”

The next step for the site will be the addition of a postcode finder, guiding consumers to their nearest John Crane stockist. Soon after, the site will begin to link through to online retailers.

The marketing continues with Aspen extending its support to the company’s customers. Once a stockist has ordered a product, they are able to download images and literature for use in their own communications materials.

“Those who have started to use the online ordering and tools have really embraced it, but we are trying to change habits of a lifetime for some, so it’s a bit of a slow burn project.”

The John Crane name is well established in the industry, but due in part to the company’s large distribution function, it has little brand recognition with the consumer.

For this reason, Aspen has decided to step up its consumer PR function for the company and is utilising exhibitions like the Baby Show and working with publications like the Mail on Sunday and other consumer titles to raise awareness of the firm and its products.

Currently those products sit under five brands including Pintoy, George Luck, Tolo, Gogo and own-brand, Branching Out.
At present Pintoy makes up 70 per cent of the business, but the next 18 months will see an aggressive growth in the Branching Out range. The logo and packaging are currently undergoing a redesign and 2009 will see a host of new products hitting the market.

Elmer explains: “We launched Branching Out in January 2006 to complement the Pin range. Pintoy has a worldwide distribution of products, meaning that not all of the product is necessarily suitable for the UK, so Branching Out filled the gaps.”

“Next year, we plan to launch around 50 to 60 new products to our own brand, which will offer us the opportunity to grow our distribution channels abroad. This brand expansion is bound to take from Pin’s 70 per cent share, but Branching Out will not diminish the sales of Pintoy, instead, it is set to grow the company as a whole.”

Elmer sees his stint at John Crane as the grand finale of his career and his focus throughout the transitory period seems to lie in three main areas – quality product, strong customer service and continuous training and mentoring of new staff.

After care

The parts department in John Crane’s warehouse is perhaps one of the largest for a company of its size. Spares of nearly every part of every product are stored and sent out free of charge if a customer experiences a problem.

Elmer explains: “It is very rare that we have to send out spare parts as the products are high quality and durable. On the odd occasion that it does happen though, we would rather solve the problem quickly and easily and keep our reputation in tact.

“We realise that children test products to their limits at times! Although legally it’s the retailers responsibility to provide this service, we take it on board, leaving the retailer free to sell the product.”

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