Exports solve a puzzle

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The Independent Online
A small toymaker who designed a complicated puzzle to stop adults buying those aimed at children is finding a market he never dreamed of.

The South African-born David Hawkins, operating from Cullompton, Devon, is selling plywood brainteasers to organ- isations including Unilever and utility companies, as well as certain universities. At a recent craft fair, he sold three puzzles to somebody who runs management training courses.

The appeal, Mr Hawkins says, is that by observing how staff tackle the puzzles, companies can find out how they might approach the sort of obstacles they encounter in doing their jobs.

Nor is it only British companies that are seeing the potential of this unusual management training tool; Mr Hawkins, whose company has always been export-led, has now secured a £2,000 order from a US supplier of educational toys.

The puzzle that is attracting all this interest is a 24-piece jigsaw within a jigsaw, although Mr Hawkins - a prolific toy designer with several awards to his name - has even harder versions available. Unlike conventional jigsaws, the puzzle's brain-teasing comes from the strange shapes it incorporates.

Demand is leading him to increase the peak-time staff at his company, Tom `O' Hawk Toys, from 10 to 15 in expectation of a year that will see turnover grow beyond the present £150,000.

It is not bad going for a man who did not intend going into business at all. Before coming to Britain he had hoped to make it as a children's writer. But when English publishers said they liked the illustrations rather than the stories, he decided to make toys based on the illustrations. That was seven years ago, when his base was his garage.

"It's very difficult to break into the market," he says, recalling how, in the worst periods, he and his staff resorted to driving around in their cars in an effort to drum up interest in the Tom `O' Hawk products.

The decision to concentrate on exports was born out of his conviction about the power of the "Made in Britain" label.

"They love it abroad," he says. The reason, he is convinced, is the quality. "The customer here forces you to produce high quality," he adds.

Since then, Mr Hawkins and his small team have worked hard on this area and claim that they are now able to sell puzzles in such countries as Portugal at prices that are considerably higher than the norm.

Meanwhile, he is being courted at home. "We're starting to get inquiries from mail-order companies that were not interested in us a year ago," he says.

Tom `O' Hawk Toys can be contacted on 0823 680040.

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