Having turned down an offer from the BBC’s Dragon’s Den, Danny Bamping has completed his act of ethical defiance by bringing toy manufacturing back to the UK from China. Gay Sutton reports
Underwater photographer, media producer, environmentalist, serial entrepreneur and now very much a manufacturer, Danny Bamping has arrived at his current position by developing businesses along each of his career paths. His holding company, 23 Acorns, incorporates a film company, environmental TV channel, UK Manufactured, Crazee Thingz and of course the product for which he is best known – Bedlam Puzzles. To his regret, it is turning down the BBC Dragons’ offer for finance to support the marketing of his then new venture – Bedlam Puzzles – that still brings him the most recognition. But he is hoping that that will soon change.
Turning down the Dragons has done him no harm, in fact it was instrumental in bringing the newly developed Bedlam Cube to the public eye and enabling him to go it alone. “I went on the Dragons’ Den to ask for the money to market the cube – to create the demand. What happened was, I went on the Dragons’ Den and created the demand by being on the Dragons’ Den.” And so, ultimately “I didn’t need money for marketing it, because the Dragons Den did it all.”
But that’s not how he planned it. His aim was to secure capital to market a new puzzle concept invented by Bruce Bedlam. To the viewer, the TV show looks like a nerve racking and intensely searching experience that many of the participants are not equipped to respond to. “It was a very good experience in every respect really. I have quite a bit of media experience, running a media production company – which I still own. So the media side of things was OK, but the focus was to try to raise interest, and to raise some money at the same time.”
He was in the Dragons’ Den for an hour and a half, but only 14 and a half minutes of that were broadcast by the BBC. “My pitch went really well,” he said, and explained a little about the experience. “You have to think on your feet in front of the dragons, you have to answer the questions and respond really quickly. And I did make some rash decisions in front of the camera,” he admitted, “but I always knew that in the end I could turn around and say no.” Saying no, however, would have consequences. The BBC had always made it plain to him that if he turned the Dragons’ offer down then his slot would not be broadcast. Everything was well and good until “a few weeks after filming, Rachel Elnaugh very publicly went into administration with her company. And then Theo offered me a loan when I went to meet him, which is bizarre.”
In the end, he waited until the very last minute to tell the BBC and the remaining Dragon that he wasn’t going to do the deal. “You’re between a rock and a hard place. And I made the decision not to do it, but I just kept my mouth shut – which is unusual for me – for a fewmonths. “I think I got a lot of respect for that from the viewers. It has given me more credibility than if I had just walked off away with the money.” It is difficult to look in the crystal ball, and visualise what might have happened, had he taken the Dragon’s money. “I probably wouldn’t have gone in the direction I have gone, in the sense of business model perspectives. The Dragons would probably have said ‘what do you mean you’re moving production back from China?’.”
Bringing manufacturing back to the UK is exactly what he has done. He has built a relationship with a plastic injection moulding company in Wiltshire and is in the process of developing his manufacturing capability with a company close to his head office in Plymouth. All of this is managed through another company that he has set up under the wing of 23 Acorns, called UK Manufactured. Meanwhile, UK manufacturing is a subject he feels very strongly about. “When I did my homework to find out what toys were manufactured in the UK I couldn’t find any – which really disturbed me.”
The rationale behind the move was carefully calculated and reasoned. Conditions in China have been changing quickly. “The prices have been steadily rising. In the last three months, everybody’s costs of manufacture – whether it’s clothes or toys – have been going up between 15 and 25 per cent.” And this is in addition to the increase in the cost of shipping. “But it’s not just the financial costs: it’s the environmental costs of all the processes involved in making the cubes in China, supporting their economy, and employing cheap labour – which is not really that ethical and is not what I want to do.” Then you’ve got the cost of the fuel required to transport the product around the world to the Bedlam warehouse, and from there to the customer. And, of course, the end user then purchases it from the retailer and takes it home.
“And that is what drove me to say that, if I’m supplying to WH Smith, for example, and I’m manufacturing the cubes in Wiltshire, there’s a 12 mile journey from where the cubes are manufactured to the WH Smith warehouse. For me, that makes complete sense,” he said. “The Bedlam Puzzle has got no packaging. I drive a Toyota Prius car. I’m doing everything I can do and that my company can do to be environmentally friendly.”
Perhaps the biggest problem he has experienced with Bedlam Cubes manufactured in China is the unpredictable quality and the sheer length of time between placing the order and delivery of the goods. “And certain orders did go wrong. I then had to remake the cubes quickly and airship them in from China, which is hugely expensive – not just financially but also environmentally.”It is basically the lack of control that he dislikes, and in an unforgiving marketplace reliability is critical. He spent some considerable time calculating the cost of manufacturing in China in comparison with manufacturing in the UK.
“In China the cubes were costing me less than £1, and in Britain they’re costing me over £3,” but the UK is not competing on cost alone. The convenience and reliability of manufacture here outweigh the cost benefits of China. And products made in the UK, he believes, are becoming a matter of choice.
Bamping made an interesting experiment in the run up to Christmas 2007, and he believes it indicates a critical trend in public awareness and thinking. He sells a considerable volume of product through the Bedlam Puzzles website. “I lowered our prices by £1 to £9 for cubes made in China and I kept the British-made cubes’ price at £10. The British cubes’ ratio of sales were five to one compared with China. I think that says it all. I think there’s a definite buying habit shift and the consumers are saying, ‘if I can buy made in Britain I will’. And I believe that’s a strong case for having a business here.” Indeed, the trend is recognised by retailers such as Tesco. However, others “like Argos or Toys R Us want to buy in volume, and as cheaply as possible from China.” As a consequence they have to predict their sales six months in advance. “So when I meet the buyers at the end of January at the London Toy Fair, they’ll be looking at sourcing products for next Christmas.”
Attempting to predict public taste and sales volumes so far in advance is prone to failure. Bamping illustrated one of the consequences of this, and how he believed it was damaging his product reputation. “Last year, some of the major retailers insisted on buying from China and selling the cube at twice its [normal shelf] value. Obviously after Christmas they had a lot of stock left. I looked at it on the shelves in John Lewis, M&S and Debenhams and thought it was a load of monkeys, really! It’s damaging my products and my brand.” But he has taken a radical step to address this – one that is truly brave. “The company that sits between me and the retailers phoned me yesterday and wanted to order cheap Chinese-made puzzles again.” He refused. The justification they gave him for the demand was that if they were paying him top UK prices for the puzzles there would be no margin in it for them. His reply was: “That’s a shame then, I’ll have to supply them direct.” And for Bamping, it comes down to his belief that consumer requirements are changing, a perception that is supported by the iconic London toy store, Hamleys, which has stipulated that they only want UK manufactured Bedlam Cubes.It seems that Bamping’s reputation is spreading before him. Other toy makers who have been manufacturing in China have asked to send samples of their products to him for a quotation on the cost of manufacturing here in the UK.
“It will be great to see other manufacturers bringing their products back from China. But at the end of the day you can only do that with simple products like the Bedlam Cube. The more complex they get, the more labour intensive they are, the more expensive they are. And that is the key thing.”Bamping, already a serial entrepreneur, is hoping to add another toy manufacturing company to his portfolio of businesses: an Oxfordshire-based maker of wooden puzzles that uses a unique laser technology invented by its founder. Meanwhile, although Bedlam Puzzles is his major earner, he is developing a more modern concept in puzzles, called Crazee Thingz. “Bedlam is an old English term, and I’ve found it doesn’t translate well in other countries. Even children in this country don’t know what it means.” His eight year old nephew, Mathew, had no idea what Bedlam meant, and when it was explained to him, replied: ‘why don’t you call it the crazy cube?’ And when exactly the same conversation happened with a customer in the US just a few weeks later, the new company and brand title was born.
His business decisions are obviously greatly influenced by environmental concerns, and I wondered how strong these concerns were. “This is where my passion and heart lies really. My first company was called Future Planet, I run websites like environmental.tv and conservation.tv, and I was an underwater cameraman for seven years.” But that was before major heart surgery, and diversification into manufacturing. And while he acknowledges that bringing the manufacturing back to the UK may not have been the “best decision in terms of the profit, if you’re selling more because you’re doing that, then it does make [commercial] sense. I think over the next year or two, the brand will become associated with being made in Britain.”
Ever on the lookout for new ideas and opportunities, Bamping believes that UK manufacturers have a golden opportunity in a world that is changing quickly. “Many just take it for granted that there’s no business out there because the products are already being made in China. I think they might be pleasantly surprised by what they could achieve if they set up a speculative phone call or a speculative meeting with somebody.”