It's A Family Affair
A month or so ago, we were approached by Toys N Playthings - one of our trade publications if we would be interested in a Q & A about how Bigjigs Toys have grown over the years. Peter and Liz Ireland, company directors, reveal how they have built Bigjigs Toys from a little business in their garden shed into an award-winning toy empire that serves over 35 countries world wide.
What were you doing before you go into toys?
Liz: We were both teachers, I taught Geography (a very long time ago!) while Peter taught PE at a school in Dover which is now closed.
What made you go into kids' toys and specifically wooden toys more?
Peter: I always had an interest in woodwork and my father was very good with his hands so I learnt a lot from him. After I decided that teaching was no longer as much as it used to be (too many petty rules and regulations), I started making a few sting puppets which I sold at craft fairs, on the beach and at markets. Liz and I expanded the range to include wooden toys because they were quite easy to make and did not require plastic moulding machines and metal lathes etc. We started making jigsaws after we met a couple in Covent Garden Market, London, who made big jigsaws and wanted someone else to cover their pitch in the market. After a short while they decided to give it all up and and Liz and I carried on.
Liz: Peter complete a craft, design and technology teaching course after Sam was born and he needed some help, so I decided not to return to my teaching post.
Where did the name Bigjigs come from?
Liz: Originally we made jigsaws with big pieces, hence the name Bigjigs Toys.
What were some of the hardships starting out?
Peter: Getting up early every Saturday and Sunday to drive up to London, find somewhere to park, set up the stall, freeze during the winter and drive home again! The one who did not go to London had to cut out 100 jigsaws, which I used to sand in a small shed at the end of our small garden.
Liz: Like most people starting out we worked very long hours. It was also the days of exceptionally high interest rates so money was very, very tight.
Who was your key mentor or who did you go to advice in the early days
Liz: My sister, who also has a great business, has always proved to be a good one to talk to. Peter: One very useful person was our first bank manager, who had a hobby wood-turning, and attended many of the same craft fairs we went to. He understood why we needed to borrow money sometimes.
Were there industry bodies or groups that were helpful early on?
Liz: Our local trading standards contact was invaluable in helping us to comply with product standards, but otherwise, no.
Were there any times when though that it was all to hard?
Liz: Oh yes, often! With two young children and a mortgage that seemed to increase monthly, working very long hours was tough.
Peter: Yes, Especially in the winter when we went to craft fairs and had to unload and load the car in the rain and snow! Sometimes coming home with very little takings.
How did your sons Sam and Tom become involved in the family business?
Liz: Actually, it started the minute they were capable of testing the products. Sam knew from an early age that he wanted to become involved, Tom needed to experience university life before he committed to a decision.
Peter: The boys were with us at fairs and later at agricultural shows. They always helped put up the tents we used or helped deck out our mobile trailer shop. They would also help out serving customers when we were busy.
Sam, Operations Manager and Tom, Sales Manager
Are there any other family members involved?
Liz: Sam's wife, Imogen is very much a part of the business and our almost two-year-old grandson, Arthur, is yet to tell us his decision on joining the business.
Peter: Arthur is of course, already employed as our chief in-house toy tester!
What are the advantages of being a family run business?
Liz: We are a strong family unit and it is the family that runs the business on a day-to-day level, we are all there making decisions on a daily basis.
What are the disadvantages?
Liz: The business can be very consuming. There are always options to consider and decision to be made, we have to remind ourselves to keep that process at work and not allow it to infiltrate home life too much.
What are your current staffing levels?
Liz: Outside of the family we employ 18, then top up with short-term contract employees at peak times.
What's been the funniest thing that has happened at Bigjigs?
Liz: We have an office dog called Archie, and from time to time he likes to wonder around (and sometimes escapes!) We received a call one day from our Sainsbury's to say they had found him wandering around the shop (obviously browsing to see what he wanted for dinner). Customer services gave us a call to say they had found him. We thought it was hilarious, but were also quite glad he was safe as Sainsbury's is quite a distance!
Which companies do you look up to and hope to emulate?
Liz: Levels of service are what we prefer to look at, and when we were awarded Independent Retailers Best Supplier Award at the end of 2011 we knew we were a preferred choice and therefore getting it right.
What are your plans for the future?
Liz: To continue doing a good job and supporting the independent retail sector, in products, price, quality and service.
What advice would you give to other families starting out in business?
Liz: Stick with it, the challenges are enormous and the rewards are not always as swift in coming as you might like, but the satisfaction of having achieved something together is great!