Carrying on with Collingwood’s Q&A blog series Chris Barker caught up with Gray Richmond, UK Managing Director of Maped Helix, the stationery business.
Being such an iconic British brand, with a strong heritage, Chris was keen to learn more about the business, its history and more about the UK stationery market.
Chris: Helix is a brand that everyone associates with their school days, with the Oxford Instruments Math set in particular. I believe the company was formed in 1887? What is the history and story of Helix?
Gray: Helix was established in 1887, under the name The Universal Woodworking Company Ltd., manufacturing wooden rule and metal laboratory apparatus. In 1894 it patented the drawing compass, and with it, launched the Helix brand. Following on from the initial success of the compass and rule, in 1912 the company's first mathematical set was created and in 1935 the brand "Helix Oxford" was launched. 1955 saw the company become known as the Helix Universal Company, moving its headquarters to Lye. In 1987 Helix celebrated its 100th anniversary with a visit from HRH The Princess of Wales. Following the takeover by the Maped group we relocated to Kingswinford, close to the old Lye site. The company is now called Helix Trading Ltd.
Chris: You recently joined the business yourself. What is it like working at Helix and what are you enjoying about your new role?
Gray: Yes, I joined the business at the beginning of December and I’m enjoying it immensely. It’s a company very much back on the up after some difficult times a few years ago. The team here are very dynamic and very passionate about the business and really focused on working hard to keep building on recent successes. 2016 looks like it will be a very strong year not only in the more traditional categories we operate in such as Math sets and office supplies but the newer categories such as colouring where we are really carving out a good market share with a great range of products.
Chris: The business was recently acquired by the French stationery manufacturer, Maped. What does the future look for Helix now that this partnership has been formed?
Gray: Maped are on the one biggest brands in the French stationery market with a long history themselves. Add to that the position they have built in many other markets with subsidiaries based right across the globe, strategically for us it’s a great group to be part of. The Maped range of products has become more and more established in the UK market over the past few years and we now can use our position as market leaders in the UK to help make Maped become a household name for the UK consumer. Add to that the work we are doing on keeping the Helix brand relevant and appealing to consumers and retailers alike and it makes a powerful partnership. Helix Oxford, I believe, is one of the most recognised brands in the Stationery market. We remember it with fondness from our childhood and see our children also now interacting with the brand as part of their school life. However, it didn’t get to this level without a lot of hard work, so we must in turn work doubly hard to maintain its popularity.
Chris: It would be difficult to re-invent the pen!...But what does the future look like for stationery market?
Gray: It’s funny as a I came from the toy industry prior to joining Helix and several years ago there was concern that the growth of tablets, gaming and the internet would see the demise of the traditional toy. In many ways the opposite happened as parents saw the importance of games, puzzles and brands like Lego for example as a way to keep some traditional values. The same could be said of the stationery market. Again we see brands that work hard to be innovative and keep up with the times flourish. You only have to look at adult colouring as a great example of that. It’s a massive business now but one with very traditional roots.
We are working hard on our NPD program in the UK and this is also one of Maped’s great strengths. They are incredibly innovative and we aspire to be too. We recently won an award at the Education show for our Jungle Innovation product. A pen is indeed a pen but it’s how we can make it more functional, more educational or sometimes just more fun that will set us apart!
Chris: I understand that Helix has a strong export market? What countries are the products popular in?
Gray: We have a very big market in the Commonwealth markets as well as a very strong and fast growing business in the Middle East. Helix Oxford is a very well known and well-established brand in those markets and we continue to work hard to support them as much as we can. Its an important part of the overall business. We export to over 65 markets so it’s also a lot of work!
Chris: What initiatives will Helix be doing for National Stationery Week this year?
Gray: We are one of the official sponsors of the show again and are running a pencil case colouring competition which will close and be judged the week of the show. There will also be a big focus on adult colouring from us on our stand and we will also be giving away goodie bags to the first twenty visitors each day.
You can found out more about National Stationery Week at www.nationalstationeryweek.com or follow the hashtag #natstatweek on Twitter.
For more information about Maped Helix visit www.mapedhelix.co.uk or follow them on Twitter @MapedHelix_UK
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