Merrythought is Britain’s last-remaining teddy bear manufacturer. CampdenFB speaks to its fourth-gen owner about its industrial heritage and hand-crafted soft toys. A workforce of just 25 makes about 25,000 bears a year, and each takes an hour and a half

BEAR NECESSITIES

ARTICLE | 13 AUGUST, 2013 11:58 AM | BY ATTRACTA MOONEY

During the Industrial Revolution, Ironbridge in Shropshire was a hotbed of metal-bashing. Now it’s a sleepy little place on the tourist trail and the manufacturing that takes place there is often of a far cuddlier variety. For Ironbridge is the home of Merrythought, the last teddy bear-maker in Britain. 

Gordon Holmes (pictured, right) founded the business in 1930 and since 2011 it has been run by his great-granddaughter Hannah Holmes, 29, and her 32-year-old sister, Sarah. The sisters took over after their father’s sudden death – there was no succession plan in place and no management who could step up and run the business. “We had to come in on the Monday morning and take the [management] position,” says Holmes. She took a sabbatical from her job as a chartered surveyor in London, and now “can’t imagine” going back.The sisters oversee everything from sourcing materials to sales and manufacturing. “Our company is very unusual in the fact that we manufacture everything under one roof in the UK. It’s totally handmade in England. We have to oversee absolutely every element of it,” she says.

It isn’t cheap. The cost of materials and staff, as well as maintaining the Victorian factory, is high. And although the bears sell for £60 (€70.4) and above, Holmes says the mark-up is very low. “When you compare our products to a designer handbag or a pair of shoes, I think we’d be selling ours for thousands if we had the same sort of mark-up,” she says. It would be cheaper to move manufacturing abroad, but they pride themselves on their “made in Britain” label.

A workforce of just 25 makes about 25,000 bears a year, and each takes an hour and a half to create. The employees are “extremely skilful and very difficult to replace”, says Holmes. It takes about two years to train a new member of staff on production and “even longer for machinists and finishers”.

It’s common for the children of employees to also come and work at the company. “We’ve got a few mother and daughter combinations. They’ve passed on their skills to their children at home, and the children had a real loyalty to Merrythought and wanted to join the firm as well,” says Holmes.

She too seems very loyal to the company and quickly dismisses any suggestion of selling the business or going back to the bright lights of London. The sisters are in it for the long haul, she says.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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