17 June 2011
Mike and Sue Neville of King & Country talk to Alwyn Brice about their toy figure business, King & Country. ...
KING & COUNTRY EXTRA INFORMATION
The London Show
As the King & Country bandwagon started rolling through the UK (and beyond), there came a crisis: Vectis, who ran the London Toy Soldier Show, decided to pull out of the organisation of the event in early 1995, leaving a gaping void in the figurine collector's calendar. Mike and Sue Neville were set to take a table to promote the Hong Kong derived figurines and somehow they were persuaded into taking up the organisation of the event. “It was only ever going to be temporary,” says Mike,” but somehow we're still at it, all these years later.”
The December show coincided with something novel from the Far East: the first in the range of matt painted miniatures. If gloss were unusual, here was something truly different.
“People said that these (Arnhem) figurines just wouldn't sell,” said Mike. “The cost for the five at the time was around £95 and it represented a big step for us. We made them into a limited edition and held our breath.”
In the event, Mike didn't have to inhale long – the models sold, and sold well.
Today, the Neville team comprises Mike and Sue with son Tony (who is a Director) and who helps out when extra hands are required. There's also David (who looks after the warehouse and is responsible for stock control); Dennis, who assists in the warehouse and Catherine who is the book-keeper and Mike's PA. It's a close-knit team, that still has input from son Bob who is blessed with marketing skills and who comes up with interesting ideas every so often, such as the re-creation of the WW2 German/English football match that was played out at a military show a couple of years back!
The Durham showroom actually opened in February 2007 and it has been well received by the public, any of whom, after checking by a phone call, can drop by to browse the stock. Mike insists there is no pressure to buy – but wander around the multiple tables and it's hard not to fall in love with something there, whether it be a figure or a vehicle. These latter are made from polystone, which is actually a mixture of resin and crushed marble: the resulting models are sturdy and weighty, as befits their real-life counterparts. Huge racks behind the scenes carry the merchandise, all ready for wrapping and shipping; and, as you'd expect, packaging is meticulous in order to ensure that the goods arrive in perfect condition. If, for any reason, a customer is dissatisfied with a product, Mike will always replace it subject to receiving the defective item first. This is a rare event, but even with the best packaging and postal services, accidents do happen.
There's also a flourishing collectors club, which numbers several thousand members. Entry is free and many of those collecting the K&C range do attend the thrice-a-year event in London to meet the Neville family, peruse the new stock and chat about the range and possible future additions. Mike says that there are many on his books who have been solid fans from the outset and even recalls a certain Mr Snowball from Saudi Arabia who called one day to enquire about stock.
“With a name like that I thought one of the boys was winding me up,” he chuckles, “ but he turned out to be real – and has been a big collector ever since.”
Over the years there have been some highly collectable models, usually those that come in a limited edition (typically 250) and with a numbered certificate. The Tiger tank in winter camouflage, for example, sold out very quickly, despite a price tag of around £200: today you might find one on an internet auction site for £750, which just goes to show the collectability of some of these models. In May this year the runaway success has been the Desert Rolls Royce Armoured Car, something for which Mike cannot account. “People just like the model,” he says simply.
Another good seller has been the pair of German tank crew in sombre black who retail at £65.
Note everything in the K&C stable has turned to gold, though. Some models sell well initially and then drop off. Two of the Santa Claus sets didn't do well; and a nativity set, part of the Life of Christ series, didn't quite perform as expected.
“What we found was that people were buying the three camels in the set. They wanted them for WW2 dioramas or for camel mounted troops. Then all the stockists started reporting that they were running out of blessed camels!” recalls Mike.
But the ups and downs are just an element of the whole, an operation that has brought fresh life to the model figurine collecting fraternity. The K&C range continues to expand, with new releases at regular intervals, which allows some models to be discontinued. I didn't have the time to add them all up but I can tell you that there are over 100 items in the Napoleonic series alone - and treble that in the WW2 range. But be warned: once the K&C bug bites, you'll need some space in that spare bedroom.
Just as Mike found out all those years back...
Top right - WWI scene, with convincing wooden biplane.
Middle - Doubles are still a popular line: here is the initial test shot and the fully painted model.
Bottom - Arnhem bridge: this is only a section, since the real thing was large!