British tennis ball company keeps bouncing back
- 22 June 2011
- From the section Business
"My business is a load of balls," says Derek Price proudly.
His family firm was set up way back in 1936 - the last time a British man, Fred Perry, won Wimbledon - and is now the last surviving tennis-ball maker in the UK.
And in the face of tough competition from Asia, the company has cut its weekly output from 70,000-80,000 balls to 3,000-4,000.
"All my old-time competitors are all gone," Mr Price says, standing outside the sturdy, if weather-beaten, Victorian block housing his cramped offices.
"But we survived because I gave all my time and energy to make changes, and to think of new products.
"In fact business is very slowly growing - the secret is we have gone in for niche tennis-ball manufacturing."
The company makes balls for tennis clubs and coaches, promotional and personalised balls of all different colours - and larger, children's tennis balls.
But its relatively high manufacturing costs mean only a handful of retailers are prepared to stock them.
Whereas a major international brand - making its balls in East Asia or South East Asia - can sell four balls for £2.99, Mr Price says, his cost between £4.27 and £4.65.
"How can I compete when the wages my staff get a day, or even an hour, are what the Asian workers are getting per week?" he asks.
"Mostly I sell directly to the public. Most of our orders come through our website."
But Mr Price and his firm keeps bouncing back, despite the workforce being reduced from 130 at its peak to just eight.
He has come up with a string of ideas over the years to keep the machines running in his factory.
"It is quite a change from when we used to run the machines 24 hours a day, six and a half days a week," he says.
Walking around the plant, smelling the rubber fumes and listening to the clanking machinery and presses, it is easy to imagine the business in its post-war heyday.
The ball works, housed in a former candle factory at Box in Wiltshire, seems little changed from the 1950s.
And there is a bustle about the place just now, because with Wimbledon taking place it is one of the peak times of year for the firm - even though Price does not provide the balls used at the event.
In the cramped workshop, hissing and groaning machines are turning pellets of rubber into wobbly ball halves.
These are then glued together, and two figure-eight-shaped pieces of cloth are then attached using a different white adhesive - by hand, not machine, as Mr Price insists this is still the most accurate way.
"We have got home-workers, retired people and so on, doing this work by hand in their own homes," he says, although it can also be done on site by trained staff members.
The balls are then placed in a heat pressing machine, which causes the white adhesive to make a seal around the two cloth coverings.
The balls can be either pressurised - pumped with air - or left non-pressurised, and any promotional markings applied.
"I am very glad the Wimbledon tournament is on at present, and with the Queens event the other week too," says Mr Price.
"It means companies are coming to us for promotional tennis balls - for example we have just done some pink tennis balls for Evian mineral water."
With most of the tennis-ball manufacturing industry churning out yellow balls, Derek says he has also noticed a retro-desire for the white balls his firm still makes.
"We did 8,000 of those a few weeks ago, so this could be another little niche for us in the future," he says.
"It seems people want to go back to the old balls for nostalgia reasons."
And it is not just from the UK that tennis ball orders have come, with two recent requests coming from the US and the Cook Islands.
In addition, the firm has developed a niche making balls for the squash-related game of rackets, and provides the tournament balls to the English and Scottish associations.
And, despite his age, Mr Price, who first visited the site as a six-year-old in 1937, has other plans up his sleeve.
"Being a stubborn old man who will not give in, I have two other balls under development, hopefully for the next tennis season," he says.
"I can't tell you what they are, just to be on the safe side."
He has reason to be reticent about his plans, saying his best developments - including those for golf and squash balls - have been eagerly pounced on by other, bigger, manufacturers.
Meanwhile, Mr Price has plans to sell the existing factory in the next couple of years, and build another on a three-acre site nearby - which he purchased three decades ago before the Asian competition kicked in.
"My youngest daughter also says she wants to come back to the area in a couple of years time, and be involved with helping to run the company," says Mr Price.
"As the firm was founded by my father, Joe Price, all those years ago, it would be nice to see it continuing in the family.
"When we were churning the balls out back in the 1960s and 1970s, I got a few takeover offers, but I never took them up because I was enjoying myself too much."