Tyne and Wear has a thriving new industry thanks to the quirky genius and nifty marketing skills of two Tynesiders with a fascination for ships.
Our late leader's promise to prune British industry of dead wood turned out to be something of an understatement, as a visit to Tyneside demonstrates. The secateurs have been everywhere here. Heavy industry? Obviously had it. Put down the handbag, and snip! Fishing? Snip. Mining, glass-making? Snip, snip, snip. If the results - DSS queues, dereliction - look worryingly permanent, The Monetarist Gardener reassures us: where dead wood is pruned, Real Jobs will blossom. Workers have merely to be adaptable, and to wait.
Devotees of this creed - if any have survived - will find heart-warming evidence of its efficacy in East Boldon, near Sunderland. Here, a reputedly defunct British industry - shipbuilding - is undergoing a renaissance. Just eight years ago, Harry Phipps, a Tynesider, constructed his first vessel. Today, Phipps's firm - poignantly christened "Mayflower" - has a multi-million-pound turnover and exports to 40 countries worldwide. Mayflower has recently managed to penetrate the market of one of the world's great shipbuilding countries, Japan.
In recognition of all of this the firm won a Queen's Award for Export earlier this year. Could it be that the Lady's horticultural politics have something to be said for them after all? A nice thought. The snag is Mr Phipps's ships are, on average, three inches long, made of glass and sold in bottles.
Until 1984 Phipps, a soft-spoken ex-Sunderland Polytechnic glassblower, ran a firm producing scientific glassware: beakers, pipettes et al. In that year, he found himself with a problem. "I'd bought a job lot of tubing," recalls the chairman of what is now Mayflower Glass Limited - Lab Glass (Whitburn) Limited, the firm's previous title "just didn't have the same ring", says Phipps. "There were four tons of the stuff, actually. I looked at it and I thought, 'God, that's going to see me out. How can I use it up?' Then I thought, 'ships in bottles'."
Sceptics may look upon this as a microcosm of post-Thatcherite Britain. Once upon a time, not so long ago, there were - among many others - three discrete and flourishing industries in what is now Tyne and Wear. On a large scale, there was shipbuilding and glass manufacture. (Mr Phipps himself once worked for Cornings, a well-known, local glass-making firm). There was also a craft-based cottage industry producing maritime memorabilia and employing those hosts of no doubt peg-legged and parrot-shouldered old sea dogs home from the briny.
That this trio should have been replaced by a single industry manufacturing ersatz glass ships in bottles may strike some readers as a depressing motif of Britain's place in the new world order. Perhaps, though, this is mere jingoism. Switzerland, after all, subsists on a diet of cuckoo clocks and chocolate, and look at its balance of trade figures. Phipps's flexibility is also admirable, the stuff of which Lord Tebbit doubtless dreams.
What's more, Mayflower Glass's tiny vessels have come to rule the (albeit artificial) waves in a manner that Lord Nelson would surely have approved. The two men responsible for this feat are frankly amazed at their success. When, by 1986, it had become obvious that machine-made ships in bottles were an improbably desirable product, Phipps set about finding a salesman for them. His choice fell on David Timmis, then with the Spode group and now Mayflower's MD. "I must admit, when I told my family what I was applying for, my son gulped and said, 'Are you sure, Dad,'" Timmis beams. "But as soon as I saw it, I felt it was a product with a future, and it was."
What neither Phipps nor Timmis can satisfactorily explain is why presumably normal people all over the world should find bottled ships attractive in sufficient numbers to warrant the manufacture of 10,000 of them a week (the current output, responsible in 1990 for retained profits of £620,000).
The human mind is a strange thing. Timmis does, however, point out that Mayflower's sophisticated mechanical process - of which more below - allowed the firm to undercut its rivals. "I remember when I started that we could sell our Viking longships for £20 when everybody else's cost £40," says Mayflower's MD. Buying raw materials in bulk (Lab Glass had exclusive rights on certain brands of Czech tubing) helped. So did an emphasis on building stocks by concentrating runs on one line at a time. "We do have to carry large stocks," Timmis admits, "but it means that we can deliver overnight whereas our competitors take six weeks."
Timmis's nifty marketing strategy has played an equally large role. In national terms, this has consisted of following the time-honoured salesman's dictum of giving the punter what he wants. The firm's eponymous vessel, the Mayflower, is thus sold in large numbers on the American market. Meanwhile, the training vessel Nippon Maru is targeted at Japan: "We don't sell many of them in the States," Timmis notes, dryly. Curiously, the Titanic is absent from the remunerative list of vessels that corporate clients - Cunard included - have chosen to have personalised with their various logos.
A flexible manufacturing strategy means they have the chance to be topical. This being 1992, Mayflower's workforce is busily engaged in sticking gilt sails (of unimaginable ugliness), onto the glass masts of innumerable Ninas, Pintas and Santa Marias. If none of this explains why the product sells, it does, at least, suggest how it does.
One can only assume that the aesthetic appeal of production line ships in bottles relies to some degree on the existence of a dash of disingenuousness amongst bric-a-brac-buyers. "People like to think we have thousands of old sailors sitting in cottages in the North East, putting the things together by hand," chuckles Timmis, with a wink reminiscent of the late comedian, Sid James. "We don't exactly advertise the fact that this is not so. In any case, in the US, for example, people are just knocked out by the idea of glass ships in glass bottles. The phrase they use, if I remember correctly, is ... ah ... 'how neat'. You can tell Americans anything and they'll believe it." To the prudish, this may seem to be sailing perilously close to the wind, but despite the olde-worlde-parchment effect of Mayflower's marketing brochures, there is nothing in the firm's promotional literature to suggest that its products are anything other than what they seem to be: production-line glass objets in bottles. Caveat emptor, you might say.
It is in what Timmis calls the "mystery" of ships in bottles that the doubtful aesthetic appeal of Mayflower's product lies. I hate to be a party-pooper, but it must be said that the actual means by which the Ninas and Pintas get into their respective bottles is anything but mysterious. Ancient mariners with loupes in their single surviving eyes plying tweezers and bits of string? Not quite. In one corner of Mayflower's recently enlarged shopfloor sit serried rows of women, some casualties of the local glass recession, gilding sails or twisting glass rigging over bunsen flames. When the last pennant has been attached to the embryonic clipper or caravel, it is put into an open-ended bottle, which is then sealed shut. There, I could bite my tongue off. The process is marginally more esoteric than bottling, say, milk of magnesia, but only just. As a piece of production legerdemain, however, it is without equal and, like all the other mechanical processes on Mayflower's production line, it was devised by Harry Phipps.
There cannot be many companies with shopfloors entirely populated by the inventions of their chairmen. It is this combination of Timmis's marketing wizardry and Phipps's quirky genius that has turned the ersatz bottled ship into such an unlikely consumer star. Having conquered its first market without a fight, however, Mayflower Glass does now face the problem of what to do next. Even with an expanded price range (your certified Columbus original will cost anything from £8 to £l50, depending on how much gilt and other gewgaws are on board), spend on bottled ships remains highly discretionary.
Timmis's sanguine view is that "one ship on a mantelpiece doesn't look as attractive as half-a-dozen". While this is at the very least debatable, it is the gist of Mayflower's promotional material, aimed as it is at fostering the idea of the product as a repeat collectable. Already, says Timmis, the ornament-buying public has ceased to view the bottled ship solely in terms of being a handy Christmas present. But should the stubborn punter find the prospect of an entire glass flotilla not to his or her taste, Timmis has responded by producing other bottled desirables: a modest outlay will secure possession of a bottled golf-cart, for example, or a gilt-finned shark. ("Our sharks are much more authentic than anyone else's," notes Mayflower's MD, firmly.)
Never ones to ignore a passing marketing bandwagon, the firm proudly advertises the fact that the borosilicate glass from which its ornaments are made is "100% lead-free" (so is most other contemporary glass), and that the wooden bases on which its bottles rest have never so much as looked in anger at an Amazonian rainforest.
If Timmis's plans proceed as they should, his sharks and other assorted collectables will bear the stamp of the World Wildlife Fund by next year, and Mayflower Glass will be "a very big company indeed" within five. Given the unlikeliness of the coup he and Phipps have already masterminded, one can hardly disagree.
For reprints of this article, contact Anne Oakley (071) 413 4336.