Even in the era of electronic gadgets, there is still interest in traditional tin toys | info.cz

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Even in the era of electronic gadgets, there is still interest in traditional tin toys

Even in the era of electronic gadgets, there is still interest in traditional tin toys
 

Who (of the former Czechoslovaks, we might add) would not know a spring-loaded ladybird that never can fall down the table and always makes a safe turn on the edge? Or a tin spring-loaded tractor (model of a real Zetor brand) with a steerable axle and a gearbox allowing three forward gears and a reverse?

In almost every family there is something that comes from the once Kovodružstvo Náchod, now the KOVAP company. This manufacturer of tin mechanical toys has a history going back to 1946 and is still doing well. Both the ladybird and the tractor had a close call several times, nevertheless, the company manually manufactures seventy types of toys, that have been attracting whole generations of people in the Czech Republic as well as abroad, and in times when children of three years of age play with iPads or tablets.

Deep in the midst of woods, there is a factory where when you visit its production area you might exclaim: Wow, I did have this at home when I was a kid. Even adults find these toys endearing. The red ladybird and the tractor are still the company´s flagship products, they just call them a seven-spot ladybug and a little tractor. And the yellow potato beetle is still being manufactured, a little bit as a legacy of the times of the toy´s birth when the beetle played a role in the propaganda against the so-called American imperialism.

It is no surprise to come across those who have worked here their whole life, and also the members of the youngest generation. Lubomír Hošek, the former co-owner and long-time director, belongs to the first group of people. He joined the company in 1976, right after he finished his military service, and thus he stayed in his home region.

„I was looking for a job and knew that Kovodružstvo Náchod manufactures toys. The company had a seat in Náchod then, these days the HQ is in Nový Hrádek and another operation we have in Semily, nothing stayed in Náchod. They offered me a job of an automated lathe setter, so I joined,“ describes Lubomír Hošek his early days.

During the years he first became a foreman, and finally a director of the plant, then he and his wife invested 250 thousand crowns in 1996 buying a substantial share in the company, so he became a co-owner of it. Though he retired and sold his share of 42 percent (as well as the other partner did) he still works for the company as an advisor.

Would he still be able to make the little tractor all by himself, because he knows the factory like the back of his hand? „Possibly, but I am afraid it would not work. The women at the assembly line have a handle on this,“ says Lubomír Hošek. And he is right. Each of the women is in charge of one of the toys, their hand moves have been automated now, so under their skilful hands grows, slowly as the process is manual, for example, a doll on a three-wheeler.

They actually pick every little part and screw by hand, and from a number of tiny coloured metal sheets, wires, nuts and who knows what other parts that they bend and screw together suddenly a toy car is born. Of course, the women cannot do without small hammers, screwdrivers and pliers. And what is more, it is fascinating to watch the local machines with real historic patina work and deliver. By the way, the ladybird in its initial stage looks like a hemisphere, and everyone´s function is tested by letting it travel on a well worn-out board, especially to see whether it turns at the edge as it should. Then twenty-one of them goes to each shipping box.

„Moreover, tin toys are environmentally friendly as you can dispose of them, once you have finished playing with them, by selling them to scrap dealers. They last quite well and that paradoxically is a disadvantage for us as manufacturers. Certain nostalgy plays a role in making them popular,“ explains the toy´s popularity long-time director, and continues to tell stories, for example from a trade fair in Prague where three people stop at the stand, a grandpa, a grandma and their grandson, finally it is the grandpa who buys himself the little tractor. Or another old man finds the old toy tractor that he used to play with when he was a boy, and sends a letter to the company to ask for a spare winding key because the original one was lost; see, how precious the toy was for him.

Tin toys are popular also because they help develop fine motor skills in children. To wind a toy up requires dexterity, and when you want to use the rear hatch of the tractor-trailer you have to find out how to rotate and release very small pins holding it.

„The Semily operation has an annual revenue of approximately 15 million CZK and profit after tax is about 700 thousand, together with the other operation they make a turnover of about 25 million. We need to support our exports to foreign markets more,“ mentioned Lubomír Hošek.

The company currently exports toys to twenty-six countries, including Chile, Mexico and also Japan, where the sales have been recently growing. The company now has two factories: in Nový Hrádek, where they make printed sheet metal, and there is a press shop producing tractor tires, that are made of special non-toxic plastic. This operation also produces cable-car windows, cogwheels and other zinc components, including the keys necessary to wind-up the spring-loaded toys. The second plant is in Semily, here they receive the sheet metal and other parts. The sheet metal is then cut and press-shaped, the parts assembled, and finally the toys are packed and shipped.

„The most difficult thing for us was to transform our production from a plastic-based one back to a metal-based after the regime change when a number of foreign companies with much cheaper plastic toys came to our market; at the time we had the whole production already based on plastic. It was difficult to go back to the sheet metal and recover the tin toy production. Fortunately, nothing was scrapped yet and the old machines stayed here. Then significant help came, when we were approached by a German company, Schuco, where the trend was quite the opposite than here, ie. there were very interested in historical tin toys, so Schuco asked us to become their suppliers,“ describes Lubomír Hošek. It was in 1995.

Today Lubomír Hošek hopes that Sages Consulting, who earlier this year became a new owner and has promised to keep the production in the Czech Republic, will be able to invest more in promotion and exports to foreign markets. Currently, most toys are sold in the Czech Republic and then in Germany, where sales are 2.3 million crowns per year. And by the way: investing in KOVAP toys pays off. „ By mistake, we managed once to print the firefighter logo on a fire truck upside down and we did not notice it, so it went on sale. Today it is sold at the auction website, Aukro, for 1790 crowns,“ laughs the long-time director of the company, that apparently may experience a new boom.

 

 
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