In my quest for finding real stories about real people driving innovation, a friend said to me “you should talk to Helena about her husband’s balls”.
So, I did.
Helena’s husband Paul has been running the UK arm of Euro-Matic – the world’s leading manufacturer of hollow plastic balls since August 2016 and Helena joined the business in August 2017.
Paul, an engineer by trade with 20 years experience in plastics, packaging and product development (Marmite lovers you have him to thank for inventing the squeezy lid on Marmite – but that’s a story for another time) spotted an opportunity in the Euro-Matic product range.
Helena has a background in commercial growth, product development and marketing and has held a number of Directors posts for major UK charities. She has bought commercial rigour to the charities she has worked with resulting in successful initiatives for fundraising and home shopping as well as commercial partnerships which adopt the principle of a “win-win” for all parties. She is used to doing things on a shoestring, so between them, they have all the skills to grow a successful business in plastic balls!
Established in 1967 in Hungary, Euro-Matic is a global giant in plastic manufacture producing over 140 different types of hollow plastic balls. The UK was just a small part of their international business and a long-established agreement for distribution in the UK was coming to an end. Paul had a hunch that there was a lot of potential in the UK market that was being overlooked as small fry. He took the initiative to approach the owners of the factory in Hungary and made an offer to take the UK and other under-serviced countries distribution off their hands.
The factory said igen. (yes)
When Paul and Helena really got started in the business of balls they realised it was a much bigger opportunity than Paul had initially thought. The application for what is seen as a simple product – a plastic ball – is surprisingly vast. It includes:
- Playpen balls for children (and adults).
- On open water, for example, ponds and reservoirs to stop flocks of birds settling. Euro-Matic bird balls are used on any open water such as airports, for example near Heathrow Airport to reduce the risk of bird strike.
- Protecting emergency water supplies in large-scale manufacture from clogging up with algae etc.
- In reservoirs to stop algae forming and reducing the amount of chemicals your local water authority has to put in your drinking water while enabling natural wildlife to flourish.
- To keep your Koi carp ponds, and the Koi carp they contain warm in winter. The balls are scientifically proven to raise water temperature by up to 10% and are transparent to allow light into the pond enabling the carp to stay healthy and grow.
- Art installations that change with wind and currents.
- Cost saving in the production of aluminium.
- Heating or cooling chemical or water tanks during manufacturing processes for a range of different products.
- Every Henry Hoover made by Numatic has a Euro-Matic ball inside as part of the valve system.
With such a vast range of completely different markets, Paul and Helena knew they needed to be strategic in how they approached the business now they were in control.
They started with the basics. They created a UK website and a range of marketing materials to appeal to their different customers. They bought every domain name anyone would ever think of if looking for plastic balls and focussed on getting their SEO working hard for them so they came top of organic searches
Then they prioritised their existing customers and old databases.
They wrote to all Euro-matic current UK customers to let them know they were running the UK business, to find out what their customers thought of Euro-matic and for feedback on what their customers wanted. Overall the feedback was that the product was good but the customer service has been poor. However, customers were surprised and delighted to be asked their views for the first time and were hopeful that the service would improve based on their feedback. Paul and Helena responded and put processes in place to ensure better service and increased stock levels so that delivery was much faster.
“With the likes of Amazon and next day delivery, it increases customer expectations and we have to compete with that”
Customers were so pleased there was a friendly UK team who understood their business and requirements, Paul and Helena went with the mantra that ‘no order is too small and every customer is important.’
Then they visited old customers in person to dig a bit deeper and get more insights about the problems their customers had, and how their business could help them. “We listened to a fair amount of moaning about the old distributors, which helped us make big improvements to our service and also reassured customers we were serious about supporting them in the future”
Having done as much as they could to keep their current customers happy, they turned their attention to attracting new customers.
They looked at each sector in turn (children’s playpen areas, open water, manufacturing, airports, fishing enthusiasts etc.). They explored what was important to each sector, what problems their product could solve and which channels to use to reach them. For example, they researched all the UK organisations that might be interested in children’s playpens. They called them, mailed them and wrote blogs about how their products had helped other playpen users and what was unique about their offer in comparison to competitors e.g. Quality guarantees, certifications, range and convenience factors. Then within the playpen ball category, they looked at other segments. For example, ball pits are used in nurseries for children, but also in bars, for corporate events and nightclubs for adults. Some people wanted a ball pit at their events including birthdays, summer fetes and weddings. Then there is the charity fundraising marketplace who use playpens for active events like Tough Mudders
Where possible Paul and Helena encourage customers to share their stories of how Euro-matic balls have helped them. Check out Ian and his Koi Carp pond and his snug, happy and healthy Koi Carp.
Scaling your balls
Due to their hard work and increased profile Euro-Matic UK were approached by Dubai Municipality in Dubai. They wanted to explore Euro-Matic balls to cover water near a new airport that was under construction. It was a massive potential order which forced Paul and Helena to think about how they would scale Euro-Matic UK. It highlighted the problems they would have to solve in order to scale up including being absolutely clear on their unique selling points.
“Every time we get a quiet spot we plan for the future”
Rather than buy expensive equipment to increase production Paul and Helena are investigating manufacture in the UK with existing factories. Their idea is to convert existing machines to manufacturer their plastic balls and optimise production in one factory. They have also developed a robust system for keeping stock and assessing their production capacity as they prepare to scale
Within the first month of Euro-Matic UK, Paul and Helena had achieved 50% of their annual target. They closed their first financial year (7 months trading) with a healthy profit and this year they are set to triple that. They put their success down to being focused on the markets that have the most potential, networking and meeting people face to face to build relationships and an understanding of their customers’ needs. They work pretty well as a team too.
“It’s not rocket science – it’s just a drive to succeed.” We had to create new networks with people who are influencers or advocates for our product”
Their biggest challenge now is that potential customers don’t know that the Euro-Matic balls could be a solution for their problems. And they need new customers because their other challenge is that the balls last forever, so there is limited scope for repeat business. Heathrow has had their balls for 17 years and they won’t need replacing anytime soon. That said there is a lot of water on this planet what could benefit from a Euro-Matic ball.
As of today, they have around 7 large scale tenders for water authorities, gold mines, airports and reservoirs as well as supplying to the largest play equipment manufacturers in the UK who supply playhouses and pubs.
Paul and Helena’s advice on innovating is…
- It’s not enough to have an idea or a product – you have to consider what makes it unique and how you let people know about it.
- Do what you can yourself with your own skills – just get on with it. Doing everything yourself will help you fully understand the true costs and what is required for the business to be successful.
- Treat your small organisation like it is a big organisation from the start with processes, formal reporting and structure.
- Know your numbers, your stock management and profit and loss every month. Have an admin process. Euro-Matic has a lot of systems and have developed the perfect systems for their needs – rather than adapting an off the shelf system.
- Core business happens every day and it’s important to keep an eye on the bigger picture. “We have an opportunities log on a ‘white board’ day to day so we don’t forget about the big vision”
- Never sit back and accept, you have to constantly drive things forward. We are always thinking “how do we get x product developed and what is the route to market?”
- Explore all channels, from e-commerce to eBay and Amazon, trade shows, PR opportunities, magazine subscriptions and relevant membership organisations. You have to be everywhere.
- Don’t ring-fence yourself into one product or sector – think fluidly to look for new opportunities.
- Know your finances – know the minimum you need to survive on and take from the business only what is necessary.
- Find mentors but don’t just take everyone’s advice – challenge everything and make your own decisions.
- Make sure that for anything that you create, you own the intellectual property, you have legal agreements in place where necessary, have a Non-disclosure agreement (NDA) in place when discussing projects to protect your business.