The Telford toy company making its mark on the global stage

Some of us are just big kids at heart. As a dad, popping into a toy store is a staple of my shopping trips.

And while my ten-year-old daughter Eleanor is wide-eyed and eager to have a look at the newest ranges of dolls and all, secretly, my interest is also sparked.

If I could see a big piano on the floor anywhere, I’m sure I’d be heading straight to it, recreating that famous scene from the film Big, with the late Robert Loggia and Tom Hanks.

Kathy Lesser with a popular Hey Duggee toy

So I have to admit a tinge of jealousy towards the team who work at Golden Bear Products Ltd, especially when Brand Manager Kathy Lesser explains: “We are surrounded by toys all day long. Just laptops and toys. We are fully immersed!”

The business launched in 1979 when John Hales and Christine Nicholls were eager to start their own toy company, having gained considerable experience in their previous roles at Chad Valley.

With great enthusiasm, they created Golden Bear Products Ltd which rapidly became a leading manufacturer of soft toys and the company has gone from strength to strength ever since.

Indeed, this year has been right up there with the most special with the company revealing its award-winning interactive soft toy range Curlimals is now becoming a huge success globally.

They are being launched in more than 25 countries and across all continents next year following phenomenal success in the UK.

Curlimals will also launch across America and Canada after the company signed a distribution deal with US firm Basic Fun.

But the company is about far more than that.

“The company’s biggest success was probably Teletubbies in the late 1990s,” says MD Barry Hughes. “We have done a lot of pre-school licences, everything from Peppa Pig to Thomas the Tank Engine. The first licence we did was Ed the Duck, and more recently, In the Night Garden, Hey Duggee and Bing.

“We have started focusing more on developing toys ourselves. It’s great that licensed TV shows can drive demand but it’s a bit out of your control as those programmes need to get on the right channels and in the right markets.

“Bing is on the number one channel in Italy but it’s not on in Spain or Australia so we can’t sell to those. So we thought, ‘we have so much experience ourselves, why can’t we start trying to create our own products?’ – so we aren’t reliant on the TV shows.”

Enter Curlimals – Higgle the hedgehog, Bibi the bunny, and Blue the badger – adorable woodland creatures that respond to touch with over 50 sounds and reactions.

They react by talking, giggling and sneezing and each has their own sounds and phrases reflecting their individual personalities.

When they are tired, they curl up into a cute ball and snore softly but pet them again and they wake up ready to play again.

Kathy adds: “We have relationships with inventors across the world. Curlimals started as something completely different but what was interesting was the mechanism – the fact it curls up. That is unique.

"There aren’t any other soft toys that curl up and go to sleep. Kids find that really cute so we saw something in that invention and brought it into the UK team.

“We turned it into this brand, these characters, who all have these personalities and stories. They are about friendship. We have taken an invention and turned it into a brand that has lots of ethos around it.

“We are excited to build that now into all sorts of things. We don’t know where it will go. It could explode into publishing, animation, content – who knows? The sky is the limit. We are all excited.”

MD Barry Hughes with some of the hi-tech footballs

Barry adds: “It’s a really local success story when you think of the big companies we are battling against, on the shelves of retailers, such as Lego, Mattell and Hasbro. This is something designed and marketed here in Telford.

“It is something we are proud of. I remember we did research and we saw the reaction the kids had to it. We knew the product could do well.”

“We are adults so you never know until it’s in a child’s hands how they feel,” adds Kathy. “It was a really outstanding reaction. It was amazing. The final proof of the pudding is sales on the shelf and it’s taken off.”

There’s more to the company than Curlimals, though, as Barry explains: “We have football products too, now, mixing tech with football."

Barry Hughes does keepy uppy with one of the Smart Balls

"There’s a massive market there. We have a smart ball that counts your kick-ups and one that measures the speed of your shot. The most recent one is a skills ball, exclusive to Smyths at the moment, which helps you with toe taps, keep me ups, sprinting with the ball.”

With products being created all the time, the future is looking bright for Golden Bear.

All this talk of toys has awakened my inner child again.

Now where’s that large piano?

A dedicated website – curlimalstoys.com – is providing consumers with engaging content and activities to introduce the characters and their woodland adventures.

Curlimals are available from stores including Smyths Toys, Amazon, Argos and Very. RRP: £19.99.

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