Meccano revives French production

By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris

Media caption,
Meccano's Mattei Theodore gives a tour of the company's ideas factory

An anonymous industrial zone on the outskirts of the French port of Calais is home to one of the great historic names in the toy business.

Meccano may have been started in the UK more than a century ago - Liverpool's Frank Hornby was the founding genius - but today it is France that keeps the brand alive.

The Calais factory punches out a million construction kits a year, plastic now as well as metal, but all instantly recognisable with their struts and bolts and evenly-spaced holes.

This Christmas the 90 staff have particular reason to be cheerful.

Back to France

Up until recently the Calais plant seemed set on a path of inexorable decline.

Meccano's owners Alain and Michael Ingberg had bowed to the inevitable and invested heavily in Chinese production-lines.

Image caption,
Many Meccano fans have been building complex constructions all their lives

The same old story was being played out, it appeared, as China outpriced yet another lumbering European manufacturer.

But then the Ingbergs decided on an abrupt change of policy.

China, they declared, was no longer the promised land of cheap labour and endlessly compliant sub-contractors.

The tables were turning, and France was once again the place to be.

They have now shifted 20% of Chinese production to Calais, and will bring back more if the experiment works.

Changing China

Eventually they want a 50-50 balance, with China solely devoted to the US market, where Meccano goes under the name Erector.

"There were a lot of reasons for the move," says Michael Ingberg.

"On the one hand, the Calais factory has a set of fixed costs so obviously the more we produce here, the more we offset our outgoings.

"But more important has been our reading of the Chinese situation. Things are changing in China. Wages are going up, the exchange rate is moving, shipping costs are ever higher.

"Above all it is about flexibility. Before if you asked for delivery in three months, you got it. Now there is a shortage of manpower in the Chinese factories, so the delivery time is getting longer.

"And in the toy business, with our very tight sales periods, that can be fatal."

Saving manufacturing

Image caption,
At Meccano, men in their 40s have the enviable task of playing for a living

It has to be said that Meccano's decision to repatriate production was helped by a big loan: 2.2m euros from France's Strategic Investment Fund, which was set up to help companies get through the financial crisis.

It meant they could invest in the all-important automated machinery, thus shedding a number of jobs.

And of course, because of its decision Meccano is now the darling of the French political classes, with government and opposition united in singing the company's praises.

Only last week, the Socialist leader Martine Aubry used a visit to the Calais plant to deliver a message about French manufacturing and the need to save it.

'Un Meccano politicien'

But beyond the purely economic arguments, the Ingbergs are happy because they say Meccano's "DNA" is in Calais, which has been the company's base since 1969.

From its early days, Meccano had close links with France, and when the company went bust in the UK in the early 1960s, France kept the flame alive.

The word "Meccano" even entered the French language to mean an elaborate construction of any kind.

When President Sarkozy orders a complex cabinet reshuffle, he is engaging in "un Meccano politicien".

Interchangeable parts

The company's most faithful supporters are the 700 or so members of the French Meccano fan-club, who meet regularly to show off their latest creations and trade tips about where to find the best second-hand bits.

"I began when I was seven and I am now 87," says Andre Schaeffer, a retired engineer from Alsace.

"That means I have 80 years with Meccano.

"For me the most beautiful thing about Meccano is that it teaches you to think."

Extraordinarily, the Calais factory makes parts today that have exactly the same dimensions as their equivalents of 100 years ago.

The measurements are calibrated under the imperial system - fractions of inches - and have never been changed.

"If you find a kit from the 1910s and you need some extra parts, all you have to do is buy a new set," says production manager Mattei Theodore.

"They are completely interchangeable."

New ideas

The company's heritage is an enormous asset for Meccano's owners.

Image caption,
Meccano production in France is being geared up

Few brands have such instant recognition value.

But is also something of a burden, because the public too readily associates Meccano with nostalgia and the past.

The challenge is therefore to come up with exciting new ideas, and the Ingbergs have had varying success with a number of radio-controlled, computerised and wifi-linked models.

Made in France

The act of creation is carried out in an obscure corner of the factory called the development room.

Here, two or three men in their 40s have the enviable task of playing for a living.

"They just take things apart and put them together and hope for inspiration," says Mr Theodore.

"You can't order these things up. It takes that moment of magic."

For Michael Ingberg, demand for Meccano can only get bigger, despite the modern obsession with computers.

"If you look at the different categories in the toy business, the fastest-growing is construction toys," he says.

"Not just us. There's also Lego, of course, which is much bigger then us."

"The thing about electronic games is that they are basically repetitive. After a while, the children get bored. They need something different.

"We offer creativity, a notion of mechanics, discovery of the world around you. And now: a Made in France label too."

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