UK: All change at the Mint. (2 of 2)

UK: All change at the Mint. (2 of 2) - Being the manufacturer of a product as emotive and tradition-bound as national coinage also imposes less direct constraints on the Mint's activities. The DM suggests, trenchantly, that "a lot of guff is talked about

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Being the manufacturer of a product as emotive and tradition-bound as national coinage also imposes less direct constraints on the Mint's activities. The DM suggests, trenchantly, that "a lot of guff is talked about diversification", championing the time-honoured American adage about not fixing what ain't broke.

There are problems, however. First, perhaps two thirds of the Mint's extant foreign custom, from the Bahamas to Zimbabwe, may be attributed in part to the fall-out from Britain's imperial past. Even the non-Commonwealth buyers have traditionally bought British "faute de mieux", the Royal Mint until recently having been one of a very small handful with international manufacturing capacity.

This cosy picture has altered ominously in the past decade, however, with the genesis of competing mints in such strategically centred, labour-rich countries as the omnivorous Korea (well placed to gobble up the Far East) and Mexico (handy for South and Central America). Even old dominions have taken to biting the hand of the imperial mother: Canada's mint, only a fraction of the age of mama's, has already managed to garner 25% of the world market, and her Britannia equivalent, the Maple Leaf, has radically outperformed the hapless British coin.

So here is the rub: whatever Garrett's feelings about product diversification, his Mint is, sooner rather than later, going to have to find itself new market niches as well. The most likely hunting ground for these lies in the Mint's marketing division, headed by Brian Williams and responsible for the sale of coins and medallions. These range from the 150,000 numismatically minded members of the Mint's Coin Club (offering "a swift, efficient and caring service") to corporate purchasers intent on "incentivising" (sic) customers and/or staff through the offer of specially packaged circulation coins.

The problem with coins is that they last, which means that potential markets for them are easily saturated. The obvious way around this is to widen the product range, but for a firm whose corporate image is bound up with national identity such a broadening is necessarily restricted.

Nevertheless, the next few years look decidedly rosy for the Mint's major occupation, the manufacture of circulating coins, accounting for roughly 70% of total sales. Changes in national status are the stuff of which a DM's dreams are made, and the changes of the 1990s have been seismic. Most national banks now adopt the annoying habit of putting coinage out to tender, but, Garrett notes, the number of tenders has increased due to a rash of "new kings and presidents".

Further, the unification of Germany has temporarily knocked out one potential competitor. ("They've got quite enough on their plates just producing enough Deutschmarks," chortles the DM.) In addition, the soaring price of raw materials - notably of copper - has forced nations all over the world to rethink the rationale of coinage values: the humble British 1p and 2p are now, for example, worth rather more as scrap than their face value. Consequently the Mint is busily preparing a range of cupro-nickel-plated steel coins, the British versions of which will hit the national pocket next year.

What happens to the Royal Mint's own status thereafter is a matter for hypothesis. Should its sometime Master, John Major, win the next general election and maintain the Thatcherite impetus, some extension of the private sector ethic might be expected. (Up to and including the appearance of pound coins stamped "Made in Korea" - "The Treasury isn't compelled to buy from the Mint," notes the DM.)

Garrett himself admits that when the Mint's future was under discussion in 1987, his own feeling was "Why not privatise it?". "Now", he says, "I'd argue against it. Our overseas customers are very concerned that the Mint's integrity should be bound up with the state. If we became private I'm pretty sure we'd lose custom. It would be a crime to sell this particular bit of family silver."

His own preference is for a 100% state-owned plc, a hybrid that would presumably be intended to make the reconciliation of public and private forces easier to effect. Such balancing of sense and sensibility will need to be handled with care.

(Charles Darwent is a freelance journalist.)

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