Golden Bear Co-founder Christine Nicholls talks toys, values and staying curious
Christine Nicholls of Golden Bear on family values, being bold and moving forward.
Christine, thanks for making time. Some Golden Bear staff talk about their favourite toys on the website… What was yours? And why?
That’s a very good question. I have many favourite toys – but a very special one has to be the first ever Golden Bear teddy designed in super soft plush with floppy arms and legs… And a very big smile.
Ah! So you’d pick a toy from adulthood?! Interesting. So that bear has symbolic value as much as anything…
Yes. My love of the toy industry developed through those early years and it’s been an amazing journey over several decades. I’ve met some truly amazing people along the way with the same passion as myself for developing inspiring and irresistible toys. I think the toy industry brings out the ‘Big kid’ in everyone and keeps us all young at heart. It brings smiles to our faces – which are so important in today’s fast paced world.
You say “several decades” not facetiously… You co-founded Golden Bear in 1979. How did that come about? What did you set out to achieve?
Well, yes; it’s quite a long time ago… But I seem to recall that an enthusiasm to develop our own products and a desire to build our own business were the main driving factors. The extensive knowledge and experience gained during our time at Chad Valley, coupled with great retailer relationships gave us the confidence needed.
This is you and you co-founder, John Hales; you both worked at Chad Valley… So who were your first customers?
Our first four customers were Mothercare, Woolworths, BHS and Boots. Their support enabled us to swing into production on the first of April, 1979. We had twenty-six dedicated employees who put their trust in us. It was a very exciting time and the company rapidly expanded and doubled profits every year.
Gosh! That is a big, bold start. What was the most important thing you learned at Chad Valley to give you confidence setting up Golden Bear?
Our time at Chad Valley gave us great insights into the toy industry coupled with the knowledge and experience of plush manufacturing. From art college to soft-toy designer, my time at Chad Valley was an amazing learning curve. I gained a comprehensive grounding, as well as managerial experience.
When we set up Golden Bear the passion to create exciting, well-designed soft toys was a key focus. We quickly developed the company motto of ‘quality, safety and reliability.’ There were many challenges but with the support of our amazing, skilled workforce, the company went from strength to strength. It continues to prosper four decades later with a much broader portfolio, including plastic toys which were introduced in the 1990s.
And what is it that you do now? On a day-to-day basis, I mean?
My role of Creative Director keeps me busy and I’m very proud of our Creative Hub with its talented design team. There’s nothing more enjoyable and inspirational than getting immersed in a new design project, complete with all the challenges!
I know you’re very active moving the company forward; you’re not resting on your laurels. What are your plans?
The company has bold ambitions to be at the forefront of innovation in the toy industry. The past two years have seen many changes to improve and update the business. The company values and new Golden Bear logo reflect our heritage, but they have a fresh, contemporary approach and vision for the future. We have a very important ‘one family’ value which is at the heart of everything.
To that point: Golden Bear publishes its values… The company says it’s “curious, innovative and unafraid to challenge the status quo”. How do those values manifest themselves day to day?
We have a truly comprehensive approach to exploring product development. Putting the customer and their needs front and centre of our decision making sometimes gives us difficult questions to answer! But it’s the only way for us to create product we know they’ll love. On a day-to-day basis, we encourage innovation and curiosity throughout our creative teams as we never know where the next spark will come from… Whether that’s a new colour palette, a packaging format, or a unique inventor idea.
And I know from working with Golden Bear that this isn’t lip-service. You have a very loyal, hardworking team…
Oh, our team is amazing! During the current lock down, they’ve risen to all the challenges – and looking after everyone in these difficult times is an absolute priority. On a personal note, I’m pleased to say my computer skills have definitely improved since working from home with Zoom and Teams meetings becoming part of everyday life.
And Covid aside, I’m interested to know: how do you think things have changed over the years?
There’ve undoubtedly been many changes over the years and a major factor has been the rapid advances in technology, and also the fact that kids are getting more savvy. With changes in culture, and the effects of social media, it’s a totally different world. Sustainability, quite righty, is now at the forefront of everyone’s mind and people must adapt quickly and innovatively to help save the planet.
Also, crazes, collectables, education, technology and online influencers all play a bigger role than ever, and speed to market has never been more important. Licenses have played an important part in the growth of the market too, while fashion and trends have massively inspired the industry.
I’m glad you mentioned licenses, actually. Since The Snowman in 1985, you’ve licensed a number of lines – from Sooty and Teletubbies to In the Night Garden and Mr. Tumble… When you’re considering a new range, what is it you’re looking for?
There are a number of factors to consider but richness of the stories and characters is at the core. We need to see that kids really engage with the brand. Good programming across multiple platforms is vital… An international opportunity is a bonus as we become a more global player. If there’s potential for us to develop a fun and interesting range that appeals to kids for years to come, we’re interested.
Great answer. Sticking with this then, how did Bing come about?
We were very excited to have the opportunity to work with Acamar on their highly successful pre-school character. We like to get under the skin of every brand, bringing our passion for perfection and expertise to every product. We’re very proud of the Bing range. This year sees the addition of an amazing Bing House Playset and Musical Statues feature plush.
And in your view, what’s the secret of longevity in toys and games?
Characters and stories that catch the imagination and keep children entertained provide some key ingredients for longevity… But knowing your target audience is fundamental. Innovation, whether it’s for a licensed character or an inventor concept, is vitally important. Products need to be fresh, relevant and have exceptional qualities. The value of play shouldn’t be underestimated – and nor should the value of research and market knowledge.
Your co-founder, John Hales, retired last year. What was the last thing you asked him about before he left the role?
I guess it was something along the lines of, “Are you really retiring this time, John?”
Ha! Really?! Like that is it?
He would’ve replied, “Once a toy man, always a toy man!” John still has his office here and likes to keep his hand in. He attends regular meetings and keeps an eye on the business!
Brilliant. I’m just presuming you’re not retiring, so let me ask this: what’s coming up for you?
We’re working on some exciting new projects – both with own IP and within our licensed ranges. Bing, Hey Duggee, In the Night Garden and Mr. Tumble continue to be our most successful brands so innovation and play value is at the heart of everything we do. Creating fun toys that exceed all expectations and will entertain children all around the world is very important to us.
Wonderful. Christine, we need to start wrapping this up so they’re just a couple more things. First, of all the questions you could be asked in an interview, what’s the one thing that’s never come that you think might be interesting to mention?
Over the years I’ve had considerable involvement with the BTHA and would like to highlight the excellent work they undertake for the toy industry. Is that the kind of thing?
That’s the kind of thing! What do they do; what makes the BTHA great?
They provide a constant source of information, and are always on hand to address any issues. I’m very proud to have served as their first female Chairman and more recently as President. I also feel very honoured to have received their lifetime achievement award in 2007 along with John Hales.
Terrific! I’m so glad I asked that; what a terrific tribute. And clearly that goes both ways. Final question then… What’s the most interesting thing in your office or on your desk?
It’s always good to have some inspirational things around you so I would say that the most interesting possession in my Telford office is a photo pinboard… It displays a multitude of photos from the past 20 years…. From amazing company outings and fancy-dress parties, to fun family moments and favourite Golden Bear toys in varying poses! This definitely has pride of place, and it always brings a smile to my face.
Lovely. Christine, this has been nothing but a joy from beginning to end. Thank you so much for your time; I’m looking forward to speaking again soon.
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