China Consumer

New playing field

Playdale, a Lake District-based playground maker, grows rapidly in China


Playdale’s CEO Barry Leahey

When most people think of the Lake District, it conjures up images of what is arguably England’s most stunning scenery (it inspired, after all, the poetry of William Wordsworth). Few will think of ‘the Lakes’ as the home of a company that’s enjoying a surge in exports to China.

The firm in question is Playdale, which has won awards in the UK for its exporting prowess. Its owners, the Croasdale family, started the company in 1735 as woodcutters and timber merchants, but in 1978 took it in a new direction by making large scale children’s playgrounds – the types found in parks and schools.

Playdale is one of 60 such companies in the UK, but in 2010 its management saw declines in its British orders and realised its reliance on its domestic market risked the jobs of its 140 employees. Its CEO Barry Leahey told WiC that he and his team decided the only option was to “go global”, though he admits Playdale had little idea about foreign markets. At the outset they even typed into Google the phrase “How do you export?” Six years later, says Leahey, “we sell in 31 countries”.

One of these markets is China, where its partner is EIPPI, a Beijing-based firm which was set up by a former paediatric surgeon named Xu Ying and her property developer father. Around three years ago Leahey says the Chinese family contacted him by email and father and daughter jetted over to the UK to visit the Lake District (which is a five hour drive from London). They spent a couple of days meeting executives at Playdale and explaining the potential they saw in the Chinese market for high-end, top quality British playgrounds.

“I was impressed by the length they went to, so we agreed to go to China,” recalls Leahey, who said Xu Ying whisked the Playdalers off in a fleet of Range Rovers to visit a potential client: a prestigious real estate project on the outskirts of Beijing, where he was stunned to be told each villa was valued at $50 million. “It had two man-made lakes which it took 25 minutes to drive round,” he says. For Leahey it was an eye-opener, and as he told High Life magazine: “It suddenly dawned on me that even if only 5% of the Chinese market was of this calibre, it would still be bigger than the UK market.”

Since then China has become its third biggest export market. Playdale and EIPPI have built seven playgrounds in the Beijing area (including one next to the Bird’s Nest Stadium), and Leahey says EIPPI has twice broken the English firm’s record for an export order, referring to two projects valued at over £100,000 each. He adds that another 25 playgrounds are in either the construction or planning stages – including a facility at the afore-mentioned lakeside villa complex – and the plan is to expand beyond the capital to other major cities around China, targeting luxury apartment complexes.

Playdale recently won the National Business Exporter of the Year Award at the FSB Worldplay UK Business Awards and Leahey has featured in a billboard campaign run by UK Trade and Investment. The company currently earns around 25% of its £13 million in revenues overseas and targets that to rise to 50% on sales of £20 million by 2020. China will be a big part of that sales increase, forecasts Leahey.

Much of Playdale’s success in China comes down to its UK heritage and the quality of the materials it uses. Indeed, its ‘Britishness’ is a big factor EIPPI believes, for wealthier Chinese parents who are worried about safety – readers will recall the scandals WiC has reported on in which children have become ill after using locally-made running tracks that turned out to be made from toxic materials (see WiC331).

All of Playdale’s products are made in the UK, and the upbeat Leahey says the firm is looking for new capital to fund its factory’s expansion. Indeed, with its bigger export markets being the UAE and South Korea, the British manufacturer may be an example of a firm that’s likely to do well in a post-Brexit world.

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