It takes a big man to wear a Minnie Mouse cycle helmet moments before meeting the big wheels of Argos.
But Andrew Coplestone, licensing director of HTI (Halsall Toys International) carries the look off with aplomb.
“It helps to be a big kid at heart,” he explains.
Halsall’s is a global success. It’s the UK’s largest independently owned designer and manufacturer of children’s toys. It started out 60 years ago. Head office at Fleetwood now offers one of the largest toy showrooms in Europe with fully merchandised displays of licensed, everyday and distribution toy ranges under one roof.
It may not have put Fleetwood on the map – Andrew admits that honour probably goes to Fisherman’s Friend or the fishing industry that preceded the lozenge – but it’s made the port a household name in the relatively small world of children’s toys.
HTI, as the company is now known, has refurbished its Fleetwood showroom off Copse Road. Visit at winter, with frost on the trees, and it’s like finding toyland in a snow globe.
The exterior is all low slung modern block build – no indication of the wonders within.
Inside it’s like Willy Wonka has redesigned Santa’s grotto for the “Elf” and Safety buyers from the Palace of the Snow Queen. Surreal doesn’t begin to describe it. Fairytale falls well short too. It is fantastic in the correct sense of the word.
But that’s not the word licensing chief Andrew and UK managing director Mark Walls hope to hear spring unbidden to the lips of all visitors, young and old. “The word we hear from everyone who comes through here is – wow,” says Andrew.
Wow indeed. It’s not so much a showroom as a sensory attack. Sight, sound, scent, touch. Bright primary colours. Lots of pink. Little girls can’t get enough of pink whether they live here or Spain or Asia or South America.
Peppa Pig, as pink as they come, big in Britain for years now, is now advancing across Europe and beyond.
Some days the team have 30 meeting with wouldbe buyers. The first showroom features the big brand names with which HTI is associated. Disney, Silver Cross, Hello Kitty, Mama and Papas prams. When they clinched the Mama and Papas deal in 1997 they expected to sell £500,000 of prams in three years. They did it in two months.
Tonka, an old favourite is rapidly regaining ground for style and substance. JCB – ditto. Then there’s up and coming toys, such as Mattel’s new Monster High range. Gothic dollies with names like Draculaura bridge the gap between undisputed international queen Barbie – with whose manufacturers HTI has clinched an interactive “role play” range – and pre-teens who still like playing with dolls but nothing soppy as their Twilight poster pin-up could be watching.
HTI girls brand manager Sarah Holden says: “The Monster High range is great, quite edgy, even dark stuff, which is just what the older girls love.”
Most of the stuff stashed in the first showroom is tipped to be the next big thing. Autumn/winter ranges for 2013. Not this Christmas. The dream crew is now consolidating their empire’s place in the international market.
The toy business is immensely big business but, as Andrew concedes: “It’s a very small industry. A lot of our customers are London-based who wouldn’t get up to see this part of the world if it wasn’t for our products. We don’t just sell one range so often many buyers will turn up from one company, one for boys, girls, pre-school, occasions. It’s like a one stop shop.
“We all know each other, in this country and abroad. It’s competitive but there’s camaraderie. And they all love coming to Fleetwood and having a night out in Blackpool!”
HTI has branches in Hong Kong, set up in 1998 and now centre of the toy world, with a custom built showroom in Kowloon overlooking Hong Kong harbour. There’s a base in Germany, in the Nuremberg exhibition centre side by side with the biggest toy manufacturers in the world. And in China, to underline HTI’S commitment to the manufacturing side of the business.
HTI doesn’t just link in with big name brands but has its own range of products too. Including the Cosy Village range cooked up by Fleetwood girl Sarah last year – and which is growing in global appeal.
Her own favourite element is the bakery store.
“The popularity of baking extends to toys,” she admits. Many of the products in other ranges are at pocket money prices, £3-£10. The best products have worldwide appeal, only the colours or fabrics tweaked for different tastes.”
The nicest thing, concludes Andrew, is that HTI remains Halsall’s at heart. “We’re still local, we own the land, we’ve people who have worked here years, are loyal, and all share a sense of optimism. Last year was flat, this year much better, next year will be tremendous. Santa’s told us!”