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.