Breaking ground with JCB: The London Toy Company’s Joel Berkowitz on his new toy range.
Joel, welcome back! We’ve already discussed your background – people can read here. A couple of things caught my eye on your stand at London Toy Fair, though… First, you already have a range of three JCB plush toys – but plush doesn’t immediately strike me as a direction in which JCB would go…
No, because instinctively – to me – their brand would seem to be based on solidity, toughness and sturdiness… It seems like the antithesis of a cuddly toy! But they sell well, don’t they?
They do! The backhoe I’ve had for like five, six years now – it was the first product I did with them. It’s sold maybe 10,000 units so far. But the reason JCB works as a plush is that young kids like heavy construction vehicles and want to play with the toys… And then they want to take those from playtime to bedtime.
Yes, it’s either that or sleep in the wheel arch of a JCB!
Ha! Who doesn’t want to do that?!
But you’re right… I often see YouTube and TikTok videos of kids who are absolutely mesmerised by construction vehicles! And to refresh my memory, how many toys are in the plush range?
Originally it was just the backhoe, then we added the dump truck. The dump part is a zip: you can open it up and put stuff in the back. Then JCB brought out a new excavator and I felt we had to do that as well… It’s really cool; the arm’s got like a rod inside so you can move it and position it.
Oh, it’s got a posable quality? I didn’t know that! See, now this is the thing: I never want to touch anybody’s displays…
Oh, you should! Toy Fair is the one place you can get right in there and play with it all… You absolutely should be able to play with this stuff.
But I’m always so nervous, Joel; I don’t want to break stuff or get strawberry milkshake stains on anything!
Well, you can on our stand. It’s not a museum; we want you to be interactive with the product.
You may come to regret those words next year when I’m running amok! In any case, the other thing I really liked this year was the range of little wooden JCB toys. Fantastic quality! I’m assuming that’s an upcoming launch?
It is, yes. They’re still finishing off production. But hopefully they’ll be finished after Chinese New Year.
“They showed us a CGI mockup of an excavator – I thought it looked incredible!”
How did they come about?
That was very much a ‘right-time, right-place’ thing… The factory that produces all our wooden TFL toys said they were working on a construction range. They showed us a CGI mockup of an excavator – I thought it looked incredible! So I went to our great licensing guy at JCB, Sam Johnson… I love working with him! And I said, “What do you think of this?” And he said, “Oh, that’s bloody brilliant!” So we immediately discussed what else we might do if it was a JCB range: a road roller and a front-shovel loader.
Three in the range, then?
Yes, we basically developed this range with Sam. They’re all FSC certified, sustainable: no plastic in the packaging, no plastic in the product. That’s really on brand with JCB and their environmental goals. And as you said earlier, they’re as you’d expect: super rugged, super hard-wearing. When we did our photo shoot, we had a kid playing with these outdoors, with actual mud and rocks and stuff.
That’s exactly how I picture it!
It’s great because it goes full circle… A lot of companies originally did wooden toys. Then everyone’s gone through plastic… They’ve gone through metal; they’ve gone through plush. And here we’ve gone full circle back to wooden. And that’s really on-brand with JCB. Also, a lot of time and labour has gone into getting the packaging right. So I’m very excited for those!
I can see that – and I saw on the stand how you really do put your heart and soul into every product. There’s clearly a great deal of energy and heart in everything…
Not at all! I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t feel it! So this range sounds like it started with serendipity. Normally if you want to do a product, though, what do you do? Do you say, “I really want to do this, Sam! Do we have your permission to do it?” And then go away and develop everything? Or do you build the best prototype you possibly and try to blow their socks off in a meeting?
Generally speaking, there are four likely routes. The first would be Sam comes to us and says, “What do you think of this idea?” The second route would be that we go to him and say, “We want to do this. How about it?” And he says yes. But then route three ends the journey because he might, however politely, say no.
Just doesn’t feel it?
Right! Not for him… The fourth option is, as you say, we just go out there and do something that we think is gonna blow people’s socks off and present it. Nine times out of ten when we go down that route, it’s something that wows them.
And since we’ve mentioned Sam Johnson a few times, it’s probably worth me saying: we’ve done an interview with Sam. We’ll put a link to that here. But now I have what I consider a very long and leading question for you! Brace yourself!
JCB’s published values include four things… A can-do, philosophy, a sense of humility, a sense of urgency, and an understanding of the French phrase, ‘jamais content’, which means ‘never content’. And I pronounced that pretty well, Joel, I’ve been up all night rehearsing that!
It was very good!
I realise how pointless it was because this appears in print! But with those four things, my question to you is this: in what ways do you see those values fitting with your own?
Hmmm. I think they’re very closely aligned, actually. Because I’m an opportunist – in a good way, I think – in as much as I look for positive opportunities… JCB is a good example. I had a brilliant opportunity to work with them and that can-do attitude is something I kind of live by. And hard as I think some ideas or products are to bring to fruition, I don’t dismiss them because of that. I always go the extra mile and take it to the maximum if I can, or until I know for sure that something’s not going to work.
“That’s really the crux of it because I think a lot of people doubt themselves when they come up with ideas…”
So I put my all into things… All my energy and that can-do attitude. And of course, hurdles come up along the way! We’ll either jump over those, swerve them – or maybe find some of them get knocked down. But I try and focus on the end goal. That’s really the crux of it because I think a lot of people doubt themselves when they come up with ideas… A lot of entrepreneurs and product developers are quite self-critical. I’m definitely someone who tries to not only enhance their abilities, but also enhance the licensor’s – because that’s fulfilling for me.
And when you’re persevering with an idea, against the odds, is there a process for that? A technique to measure the value of the idea, or the realism of it?
Oh, that’s a good question! Well… Personally, I’m not finance oriented in respect of product development. So it’s not, for me, a case of, “A wooden toy? Oh, we could probably only sell a few hundred of those. It’s not worth doing.” I’m someone that puts in all of that energy and work, no matter what the outcome may be. Obviously, there’re a number of calculated decisions on costing and sales opportunities, but I don’t initially base my ideas on the possible financial success.
Right. You don’t dismiss an interesting idea just because it’s not the biggest money spinner?
Right! Because I’m a product developer. You have to separate… Often, if you look in the real world, you’ve got the designer on the one hand and the engineer on the other. The designer tends to want a beautiful-looking structure with curves, say, or a whole built-up environment. And the engineer’s like, “Well, you can’t do that! You’ve got to do it like this.”
So I go through that process on my own because I’m sort of both of those people – a designer and an engineer. And I go in a bit gung-ho: “I want it to look like this. I want this, I want that, I want it to be as close as possible to a real JCB” for example… But then I’m like, “Okay, well: you can’t do that, Joel. You’ve got to be sensible here. You’ve got to think about what you can and can’t do.” And then I marry those two views together to come up with the best solution.
Brilliant! Lovely answer. And how important is it – given everything we’ve discussed – to find licensing partners that share your values? Or whose values can mesh with yours?
Well… I would say very, because I really do put my time into the things that I love. I don’t go after the Barbie licenses. I don’t go after Batman… I don’t go after that very mainstream stuff. The things that we do in our business – Transport for London, JCB, Royal Air Force, Harry Potter – are, first and foremost, things that I love myself. So I could say that the company is a reflection of my interests.
Yes – I see that; I think that really comes across.
Now, obviously it’s a business, so it can’t be that you love EVERYTHING you do equally! But I can see if there’s an alignment with the market liking the kind of things I come up with. And there’s that synergy between a big-enough market that loves transport, say – since many of our things are transport oriented – and that fulfilment then drives further development… Because if I was doing stuff that I didn’t love or enjoy, I would’ve given up a long time ago.
And does that apply to the partnerships themselves?
Yes. I’m constantly striving to develop new partnerships or licenses with people and brands I love and want to work with. I’m thinking about all of the private-label work we do with London North Eastern Railway, for example, and Boeing and Eurostar… They’re all things I love, and I believe I can add genuine value to. So while anyone could make a soft-toy train for LNER, they’re probably not going to get the same dedication, enthusiasm and knowhow from anyone else.
Great answer. You also made me aware that I hadn’t looked at it as ‘all stuff that Joel loves’. And that leads to the question: are there things that you love but don’t yet manufacture? Are there dream licenses you’d like to hold?
Yes, absolutely! I’d love to do stuff with the truck companies, like Scania, say. I’d love to do remote control stuff and plush toys… There’s also a lot of other train companies which we do private label for; I’d love to turn them into a licensing agreement.
Can you name one of those, by way for example?
We work with Eurostar – perhaps that’s a good example. Great brand! I’m sure they sell good numbers by themselves, but I’d like to take a Eurostar range to market. That would be fantastic! Remote control trains, soft toys… Maybe as a hybrid between licensing and private label.
Brilliant. Thanks for that, Joel. Always a pleasure to catch up – and best of luck with the JCB range!
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