Silver Cross: how Alan Halsall bought the pram-maker back from the brink

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Alan Halsall of Silver Cross reading papers at his desk

Silver Cross, pram-maker to the stars, went bust eight years ago. Rescued by toys entrepreneur Alan Halsall, the firm is back on track thanks to innovative design, a world-class factory in China and an embrace of social media

When Alan Halsall bought the pram-maker, Silver Cross, out of receivership in 2002 he was asked by BBC radio’s Today programme why he had made a move for such an old-fashioned company? His simple reply was that he thought it offered a good brand, and that people loved brands.

It was the second time in just over three years that 133-year-old Silver Cross—whose customers include the royal family and Mick Jagger—had fallen into administration as people chose to buy cheaper, more contemporary imports that were better suited to modern lifestyles. Where was that love and brand loyalty then? But Halsall didn’t think he was taking risks. As the owner of a toy company, he’d been making products in China since 1979. He felt there was going to be a rising number of consumer goods coming out of China, and the way to differentiate a quality product was with the brand.

“Despite the difficulties Silver Cross had had over the years, people still thought of it as the Rolls-Royce of prams. You can’t easily buy that sort of love or heritage,” he says.

Halsall International was a licensee of dolls’ prams bearing the Silver Cross name. At first, Halsall thought that if he bought the pram-maker he could save on royalties. But after speaking to administrators he realised what a “brilliant” brand it was and that he could “do something with it”.

And he has. Halsall has brought the brand into the 21st century, introducing new product lines and employing social media mixed with old-fashioned values such as customer service. Sales have grown from £2.3m in 2005 to £19m today, and for the past three years Silver Cross has been listed in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100. It has won product awards including a Mother & Baby magazine best pushchair award for its innovative 3D “pram system” that transforms from pram to pushchair to car seat. According to research firm Mintel, the 3D is one of the best-selling pushchairs in a baby and nursery equipment market worth around £684m to the UK economy and which is forecast to top £753m by 2013.

Halsall attributes the turnaround to “great design, great marketing, and producing prams at a world-class factory in China at a reasonable price”.  The company’s main problem in the past was restricting manufacturing to the UK. Although he still wanted to make the famous Heritage prams in the UK “because they are expected to be”, he felt Silver Cross needed to develop new lines such as super-lightweight prams, pushchairs, car seats and high chairs, and to do this the company needed to launch operations in China.

Halsall bought the Silver Cross name and the intellectual property rights, but he left the manufacturing plant in Guiseley, West Yorkshire, well alone. Looking back now, he says it was a “scintillating deal”. His initial investment, including buying Silver Cross, as much machinery and tooling as he could afford to manufacture the Heritage prams (now produced in a small factory just outside Bradford) and working capital, was around £4m. Then he hired Silver Cross’s former sales director Nick Paxton as chief executive. While Halsall’s role as owner and chairman is to “steer the ship”, Paxton is the “driving force” of the business.

The company has invested heavily in product design and innovation. Halsall believes the Surf, which took two years to develop, is “the most stunningly beautiful product we’ve ever done”. The pram-pushchair has a super-lightweight frame of magnesium alloy, more often found in spacecraft and mountain bikes. “We are the first company to successfully launch this lightweight material into our industry,” says Paxton.

“People ask: is it very Silver Cross?” says Halsall. But he points out that when in 1877 Silver Cross produced the first Heritage pram, it was very different to what had been around before. “We’ve got to keep investing in design,” he says. “You can never sit back on your laurels and think you’ve cracked it because you haven’t. If you don’t look to reinvent your company all the time, someone else will.”

But Paxton says Silver Cross must be mindful when launching innovative products. “It’s easy to alienate with the classic nature of a brand such as Silver Cross. If we step out of our comfort zone, we have to deliver. If we masquerade a product as something it is not, we are quickly found out.” The company plans to launch nursery furniture and bedding later this year. But Halsall doesn’t want the business to grow too fast. “You cannot control a company that grows too quickly, you lose customer service,” he says.

It is for this reason the brand is mainly marketed through the independent nursery trade. “We’ve not gone to all and sundry to sell the product,” says Halsall, who feels Silver Cross is best represented in specialist shops such as Mothercare, John Lewis and Toys R Us, which can offer a more personalised service than a catalogue or supermarket. Halsall is more interested in the brand’s sustainable growth. “If I wanted I could expand the product range and our customer base quicker, but at this stage I don’t think that’s the right way to go,” he says.

As part of a brand-building drive, Silver Cross is embracing digital marketing and social media. As well as Halsall’s regular blog on the Silver Cross website, the company has set up Silver Cross Days Out, a website Halsall describes as a “TripAdvisor for kids”. It’s a non-profit community site where mums, dads and grandparents can find ideas and reviews of where to take children for a fun outing.

We’re not getting money out of it, it’s for brand building and to genuinely help people. I think social media is so important for a brand,” says Halsall, pointing out that the typical consumer, the mum, is a bright, digitally able person who spends a lot of time online looking for special offers. “We’re trying to become the brand that cares about her and her needs. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube—we’ve got to be there as a brand like all the big companies are and we’ve got to be seen to be there.”

The number of people using parent forums on the internet to swap advice and source product reviews has increased exponentially over the past five years. According to Mintel, the biggest online meeting point for mums in the UK is Bounty.com, with 750,000 members. Other popular forums include the often-quoted Mumsnet.com, Nappyvalley.co.uk, Mothercare’s Gurgle.com and Netmums.com.

Word of mouth on Web forums can be lethal, says Halsall, especially when you are dealing with babies and safety. Part of his role, he says, is to read each email about quality and ensure that problems are dealt with quickly. Recently, Silver Cross had to recall a small number of its Halo pushchairs after a problem with a joint that fell away following continuous use and in which children could trap their fingers. “As soon as we found out we recalled the product to sort it out. You’ve got to face up to those problems.”

The company’s swift response probably saved it from the sort of bad publicity aimed at competitor Maclaren last year. Children had fingers amputated after trapping them in the folding mechanism of a Maclaren buggy. What happened could have affected any business but Maclaren fell down by delaying improvements to its pushchair, says Halsall: “If that was us we would have picked it up much earlier and fronted the problem,” he says.

In 2007, Silver Cross launched in China alongside one of its Chinese manufacturers, Goodbaby, which has stores in major cities. “I’d like to say we did a lot of marketing and clever research, but we didn’t. They [Goodbaby] wanted to take our products into their stores and it’s working very well,” says Halsall. “Everyone thinks China is going to be huge—and it will be one day—but I guarantee it’ll take longer than most people think. There is a growing middle class with wealth, and they do like British brands, but it is taking time.”

Silver Cross exports all over the world with the exception of the US, where it tried and failed. “It was a complete and utter disaster,” Halsall recalls. “I thought it was a great idea to go to the States, people loved us there, but we tried various distributors and that didn’t work.” An “horrendous” court case, where the firm was sued over image rights by American actress Jennifer Lopez, didn’t help matters. “That cost us an awful lot of money, and as a result we’ve been put off going to the US,” admits Halsall. He foresees much more growth potential in Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia and Australia.

As well as moving most manufacturing to China, the company’s turnaround may also be thanks, in part, to the rediscovery of the brand by yummy mummy celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and Sarah Jessica Parker. Silver Cross used to make the most of celebrity endorsement, but since the Lopez debacle Halsall says it has moved slightly away from that strategy now. “We are a brand for everybody, not just for celebrities. I’m not sure Silver Cross could cope with another JL situation,” he says.

Although not everybody will be able to afford Heritage prams, which retail at around £1,000, more modern options are priced to compete against other High Street offerings. Halsall believes his products are genuinely good value for money, but he says that getting the balance right is difficult.

“Everybody wants Rolls-Royce quality at the cheapest price,” he argues. But he loves the global spread of his brand. “The week before last I was in Nice and on the promenade was a French family with a Silver Cross pram sold through a French distributor. And a couple of months before, I was in Japan and saw one in Tokyo. I want to produce a great product that people enjoy. I want the company to be passionate about the product. It gives me more satisfaction than anything else to see Silver Cross growing, and to get emails saying we have a Silver Cross pram and we love it.”

Halsall is keen to keep the company as a British family business. His son, Ben, is sales director. “I want to keep it in the UK. There’s a great future for British brands, and for Silver Cross. My aim is to ensure that this well-loved brand is alive and kicking for many years to come.”

As chairman, Halsall works part-time at Silver Cross. He also does charity work and earlier this year he supported the Conservative party during its election campaign. He says he’s hoping the prime minister’s wife might have a Silver Cross pram. Will she be paying for it?

“Absolutely… if Sam Cam wants a Silver Cross pram she will have to pay for it. Our competitors will probably give her one, but we’ll survive.”

Silver Cross – find out more

silvercrossbaby.com

By Sarah Hanson

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