At the end of 2014, a “wind of change“ blew through the offices of the import company, mbw: Thefounders Walter and Monika Both made way for the new management – their daughter Andrea Bothand Executive Director Jan Breuer. The success course of the last three and half decades is set to continue:With an extra portion of safety and quality, charming messengers from reflective bears, to thecuddly frog and the city duck, through to Super-Bert collect plus points for promoting companies.
The list of friendly characters that the creative specialists at mbw have developed over the last 35 years is simply endless. However, none of the characters are as closely associated with the company history of the promotional products importer that is located in the far North of Germany as the reflective bear. An oversized version of the cute reflector, which originally measures 7 x 5 cm, decorates the company’s premises in Wanderup in North Germany and lends the firm its radiant face.
It all began with reflectors
Its exposed position at mbw is no coincidence: “I noticed while travelling through Scandinavia that as a matter of course nearly all pedestrians wear one or more reflectors as part of their personal safety
equipment,” explained Walter Both. “Whereas in the 1970s, hardly any such reflectors were to be found in Germany.” Walter Both recognised the potential that the small safety accessories held and founded the company MB in 1980 together with his wife, Monika. 17 years later the company was renamed mbw. Greatly due to the Both’s efforts, the reflector has asserted itself more and more since the 1980s, also South of Scandinavia. Monika and Walter Both only marketed reflectors that have good retroreflection values. Since 1985, the company has been selling items of the Finnish specialist Coreflect (formerly Talmu) – up until this very day the widely recognised state-of-the-art supplier of this product group. For example, the Coreflect reflectors increase the visibility of a pedestrian for a car driver, who has his lights on at night, from approx. 30 up to approx. 150 m, which in turn means they are real lifesavers.
For Both the theme of product safety is a matter very close to his heart – he was a dedicated member of the Standards Commission for the introduction and expansion of the European-wide Reflector Standard EN 13356 for years. “Our product groups – reflectors and toys – are particularly sensitive,” confirmed Monika Both. “It is therefore absolutely essential as a supplier to take a particularly responsible approach here.” A philosophy that is pursued throughout the company’s entire programme and which is expressed in an extremely vivid manner in the case of the reflective bear, here the flagship of mbw combines a likeable design with a high degree of safety and quality awareness.
Ascent with promotional products
The company focused its attentions on the promotional product market early on: In 1986, the company joined the PSI, in January 1987 MB exhibited at the PSI Show in Düsseldorf for the first time. One year later the next big step followed: The Boths purchased the building of a former blacksmith and metalworking shop and converted it into the new premises of mbw. Eight years later the premises had become too small again. An additional new building next door provided the necessary extra capacity. At the turnof the century mbw had long since conquered the German promotional products market with its products, the company further expanded in the following years: The export business was stimulated, the number of employees increased up to the current headcount of over 60 people, new product groups – for example silicon bracelets, felt items or microfiber cloths were offered in addition to reflectors, cuddly toys and rubber ducks. The strategic decision for JCK Holding to become a majority shareholder of mbw in 2007 proved to be the right move. The participation not only opened up financial possibilities, but also further intensified the contacts to the Far East as well as to the sister companies Daiber,Fare, Halfar, Karlowsky and SND.
Wind of Change
In November 2014, mbw celebrated its 35th anniversary. It proved to be a very special year in all respects, because at the turn of the year Monika and Walter Both retired from the business. The management change had been long planned and secures continuity. The present management duo comprising of Andrea Both, the daughter of the founders and Jan Breuer, have significantly coshaped the destiny of the company over the past years. Whereas Andrea Both is responsible for the marketing side of the company, Breuer has already been working at mbw for over a decade as Sales Director and authorised signatory. Appointed
Executive Director on January 1, 2014, he was also involved in all important decisions. “Jan is like part of the family. We are very close – and we have total confidence in his experience, his competence and his passion,” Walter Both said, convinced that he has chosen the right person as his successor. High quality and safety demands, fair working conditions, technical know-how and creative product development – the new management is committed to the same values as the old managment.
mbw places great value on the fact that its products remain unique. Instead of importing me-too goods, the company invests in the development of own designs. For example, their collaboration with the Italian illustrator Massimo Indrio resulted in the plump cult figure Mr. Bert®, which together with many other items from the line-up, mbw has registered a European design patent for. Mr. Bert and his equally chubby companion Berta® come in numerous different outfits – from tradesmen, doctors or chefs, through to DJs, soldiers or football players – and versions: as Squeezie®, soft PVC key pendants, cuddly toys, piggy banks or magnets.
There is an even wider assortment of cuddly toys, comprising of around 200 different models it covers the entire range of fauna from A for ape through to Z for zebra. And with approx. 140 different types of rubber ducks, no wishes go unfulfilled: Newcomers to the range include for example referees, billiard or marksman ducks. Under the brand name CityDucks®, specially designed ducks from all over the world from Peking (with a rice bowl), to Amsterdam (with cheese and tulips) through to New York (as the statue of liberty) have set off on their promotion trip.
The ducks are made in BSCI and ICTI-certified factories and are made out of phthalate-free PVC in compliance with EN 71. To be on the safe side, the company from Wanderup has the squeaky bathtub companions checked by an independent testing institute to verify that they are harmless to health. The company’s range of cuddly toys are also subject to strict controls. “In 2008, we were the first company in the promotional products industry to offer the Oeko-Tex-certified cuddly animals and we expanded this area several years ago with our Baby-Safe items,” reported Walter Both. “Being awarded the Oeko-Tex certificate and updating the product groups every year is extremely time and cost-intensive, because in the case of the cuddly toys all of the materials used – for example also the filling – have to be individually
tested.” Tests by the TÜV Rhineland ensure that EN 71, Part 1, 2, 3 and 9 are adhered to. The brand MiniFeet® and the recently launched matching brand of ducks Schnabels® documents this special sense of responsibility. What applies for the company’s “plushline” and “duckline”, is also true for the “filzline” (feltline) and “reflexline” (reflectiveline), mbw always strives to provide verifiably good quality. For example, most of the felt products are also certified according to the Oeko-Tex standard and are mostly manufactured in Germany. And in addition to the Coreflect pedestrian reflectors mentioned at the beginning of the article, the “reflexline” also offers a variety of further reflective products, which – equipped with high-quality materials such as Reflexite® or 3M Scotchlite – are used as safety vests, reflective straps, animals and monsters or as soft plastic reflectors. TÜV GS tests are also the order of the day in this area too. “We want to be absolutely safe,” stressed Walter Both, who employed Lutz Franke as the company’sQuality Manager three years ago, in order to do justice to the growing demands in this segment.
Infrastructure and import know-how
In the recent past, the company has not only invested in personnel, but also in the infrastructure. Moving into a larger warehouse at the beginning of 2014 was the result of the consistent growth. The warehouse not only offers sufficient capacity – for example between 600,000 and 800,000 ducks alone are held in stock – it also boasts modern equipment.
Furthermore, mbw has installed its own printing shop in order to be able to individualise small to medium-sized orders themselves on-site. The dispatch of free samples within 24 hours is also one of the standard services offered. The company has gained a good reputation among the promotional products trade thanks to its high level of service, customer proximity and reliable deliveries.
This is further consolidated by its good knowledge of the import markets. Already in 1991, Walter Both established the first contacts to the production sites in China, the relations were continually intensified over the course of time by regular visits on site. “We have been working together with many of our suppliers for many years and also support their development i.e. very intensively in the case of BSCI and ICTI certifications. In spite of our diverse programme, we have decided to limit the number of partners down to a few specialists. This gives more opportunity to influence the situation,” explained Walter Both. “Precise knowledge of the production markets is also an enormous advantage when producing custom-made designs.”
Furthermore, a permanent presence in China is guaranteed through the parent company, JCK: An employee at the Shanghai office of the holding company is responsible for the on-site quality controls of the mbw products. “The integration into the JCK Holding has brought many advantages for us,” confirmed Jan Breuer. “The facilities that the holding company offers are at our disposal – for example the China office or thetextile laboratory, Labtech in Germany. This helps us with our daily work. We are autarkic in our decisions.”
As a globally-operating family company, mbw effortlessly succeeds in doing the balancing act between the global alignment of the company and its regional deep roots in the Northern part of Germany: “We like to play on our Northern German origin when communicating our image to the public,” commented Andrea Both. “Mailings with our ducks are also sometimes refined with real North Sea sand. That lends us an identity and creates authenticity.” So do the protagonists of course. Nobody has to worry that part of the mbw spirit will go amiss because the two founders have left the company. Monika and Walter Both have left their mark and have notably shaped the company and their successors have already been following the same course for some time. The change in management certainly won’t affect the composureof the bear on the mbw building. He carries on smiling radiantly at the whole world.