If you’ve ever watched the BBC 1 genealogy series you’ll know that your family tree can reveal traits that do seem to pass from one generation to the next. For the Samuels family the characteristics of entrepreneurship and adaptability are at the heart of the legacy that takes them from a Russian émigré toymaker in the 19th century to 21st century Salford-based Global Journey Ltd.
“My great-grandfather left Russia where he made wooden toys and settled in Liverpool,” explains Colin, CEO of Global Journey Ltd. In a further nod to the BBC 1 series, Colin’s great-grandfather is also grandfather to Stephen Samuels of Samuels Financial LLP. “There’s not a big age gap between us,” says Colin, “He was the youngest in his family and I’m the oldest of four.”
Colin’s paternal grandparents decided to move to Dublin and open a toy shop there. “It was called Camberley’s,” says Colin. “My grandmother came from London and she had fond memories of visiting Camberley in Surrey, hence the name.”
They were successful and opened more branches. Meanwhile Colin’s father had gone into the clothing trade. He designed and manufactured the clothes but union problems in the industry had a negative impact so he decided to join the toy store business.
By the time Colin left school aged 18 in 1979, his parents had developed the business to include gifts and a warehouse. “I started working in the warehouse, Cambie Wholesale,” says Colin, “and ended up running it within five years. It’s been through different guises over the past 40 years but it’s the foundation of what we do now and it’s employed all four brothers along the way.”
“Cambie was a successful business. We were the Irish distributors for Spears board games. We had a good line in toys but we were always on the lookout for the next trend,” says Colin.
The decision to visit an American trade fair in the mid-80s proved to be a major turning point for the business and the whole family.
“Everyone went to UK trade fairs so we all saw the same products, but we were the first to go to the New York Gift Fair and that gave us a major competitive advantage,” explains Colin.
The Samuels were impressed by a new gift range no-one had seen before: self-help audio. “The cassettes were well-packaged in a nice floor display unit and covered things like stop smoking or learn to relax. It was new in the US and hadn’t been seen this side of the Atlantic.”
The brothers imported the product to Ireland where a new bookshop had opened in Dublin – Waterstones.
“It was the only branch in Ireland and the self-help cassettes took-off and sold phenomenally well.” A few weeks later the Samuels received a cheque from Waterstones’ London head office. “We rang them and asked if that meant we could supply to the UK stores too – they said yes, you’re a registered supplier now.”
“We were on the next boat over,” says Colin with a grin,” supplying 400 Waterstones stores in the UK within weeks.” Dillons bookstores wanted a supply for their 200 stores too and it became clear the UK side of the business was much larger than the Irish.
“The whole family, grandparents included, moved to England,” explains Colin. They settled the business in Salford for its good transport links. Stephen Samuels was the obvious choice for their accountant and they transferred over to The Accountancy People when Stephen sold his practice to James.
America also taught the Samuels an invaluable lesson about the gift market. “It’s cut-throat – especially in the US,” says Colin. The self-help idea was copied by others, eventually dominated by celebrity names and the American firm that supplied the original product failed to recognise the changes and went out of business.
“You’ve got to stay ahead of the pack – otherwise your business dies.”
It’s something Global Journey excels at. The firm went into music production, developing their own range of gift CDs; they added in personalisation, particularly for children’s names; a multi-lingual Dutch father-in-law expanded their business into Europe and discovered an Italian supplier of minerals that opened up a whole new range.
“We took the idea of a bubble-gum dispenser, put the minerals into plastic capsules and placed them in gift shops at aquariums, zoos and other outdoor venues. Kids loved them.”
Even so, Colin and the team were concerned they were too reliant on the CD market which was declining as music-streaming took hold. “In 2014 we had four product ranges and the CDs accounted for 90% of the business.” Colin recently worked out that of their thirteen main competitors five years ago, Global Journey is the only one still in business.
Now they have 15 product ranges and CDs account for less than 10% of the business.
Personalisation remains a central theme. “Our latest range is hand sanitizer key rings which you can get with your name on,” says Colin. “But it’s one of the generic titles that’s our best seller – ‘Dog Walker’s Handwash’.”
They continue to sell mood rings and gemstones. “They’ll always appeal to kids so it’s a naturally regenerating customer base.” They’ve also moved into bamboo coffee cups, eco-friendly car fresheners and retro gift notebooks.
“When people ask us how we spot the next trend I always quote my father…”If people want bananas, we’ll give them bananas…” It’s about understanding your client base and giving them what they want.”
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