CEO Interview: Anuja Wilson and Lamani Simons, Orange Tree Toys
PUBLISHED: 15:05 24 October 2017 | UPDATED: 10:02 22 August 2018
© Thousand Word Media
With Prince George their most famous fan, Anuja Wilson and Lamani Simons are at the top of their game when it comes to the children's toy market. We look back to when Lucy Parford met the two sisters
Finding a perfect present for a special little someone is always one of the highlights at Christmas. Along with a twinkling tree and festive feast, the season is all about enjoying the look of delight on a child’s face as they unwrap their presents on Christmas morning.
Bottling this sense of excitement is the team at Orange Tree Toys, in Toddington, which works with beautifully-crafted toys all year round.
Founded by sisters Anuja Wilson and Lamani Simons, the company specialises in timeless wooden toys which are all designed in-house. Anuja, 48, is the Creative Director who comes up with new ideas to enchant young children, along with their parents and grandparents, each year, while Lamani, 52, is the Finance Director.
Delightful new toys are always being added to the core collection which has been going strong for 17 years, with bestsellers including alphabet puzzles, pull alongs and animal skittles.
Anuja and Lamani, who grew up in Sri Lanka, ran their own gift shops stocking crafts and toys, including one in Cheltenham’s Regent Arcade, before setting up Orange Tree Toys in 2000 from their Gloucestershire homes.
The partnership works so well because of the experience of working together before and enjoying very different roles within the company to complement each other’s skills.
“We know and understand each other very well,” says Anuja, who grew up sharing a bedroom with her older sister.
The sisters travel to Sri Lanka once a year to visit their parents, who moved back in the late Fifties after meeting at Loughborough College, and they have four other siblings too. They were all brought up with a strong entrepreneurial spirit as their Sri Lankan father had his own engineering business.
Although they didn’t have lots of toys growing up, because they weren’t readily available in Sri Lanka, their mother’s creative spirit in making rag dolls might be what has spurred her daughters on to create such beautiful gifts for younger generations.
Orange Tree Toys began by making soft toys and rag dolls, but over the years the range has changed to specialise in wooden toys.
“All our family are self-employed and started our own businesses which probably gave us a little bit more courage to do it, to think ‘we can do it’,” recalls Anuja.
“It worked well initially when we had young children, although it was quite difficult - we had to work when they were asleep and then at school - you have to work around your family.”
Having encouraging husbands at home helped too, Lamani notes, as they didn’t have the pressure to achieve success in a short time, but allowed themselves the time to grow the business organically.
“For years our families have been very supportive,” she says. “It’s lovely to see how it’s grown and there is still lots of room to grow in the future.”
Working late into the night as a start-up has paid off, as Orange Tree Toys are now stocked by top end national brands such as John Lewis, Hamleys, Harrods and Selfridges, as well as Waterstones, Fenwick, JoJo Maman Bebe and small independent shops including Rikki Tikki in Broadway, Box of Delights in Bourton-on-the-Water and Crocodile in Cirencester.
“There aren’t many companies which do wooden toys designed in the UK for the UK market,” explains Anuja.
“There are a lot coming from Europe or the Far East, but we decided to do a range suitable for the market we’re in.
“We really started to flourish from around 2011. Our children were older then and so it gave us a lot more time to spend on the business itself and we had a really great team working with us.”
Lamani adds: “That’s when we changed our packaging and great pieces designed by my sister, like the crocodile puzzle, were introduced.”
Having a certain Prince George snapped with one of their trains in an official photo in 2015 was a boost they couldn’t have dreamed of too.
“It was in the national newspapers, in the US and around the world,” Anuja remembers.
The same pull along vintage train from the company’s British Collection flew off the shelves and is still one of its bestsellers.
Despite the growing popularity of its toys, the directors have resisted requests to be stocked by the main supermarket chains, sticking by independents such as Toys to Grow in Cheltenham’s Regent Arcade.
“People want an experience when purchasing something, not just the product,” says Anuja. “Our toys are very much a gift bought by grandparents, godparents, aunts and uncles, who want beautiful packaging and old-fashioned toys.”
Meticulously designed in Gloucestershire, the toys are all made in the Far East to rigorous standards and once a year the sisters go out to visit the factories where their designs are brought to life.
“The products have longevity, so aren’t trend-related. They are for pre-school, so the product could be fresh in the years to come,” she explains. “The crocodile puzzle has been with us since 2012 and its one of our bestsellers.”
While Anuja’s two daughters have grown up and are now 13 and 17 and Lamani’s son is 13 and daughter 20, that doesn’t stop them commenting on new designs and being excited when the finished products arrive, a bit like their mums.
“It’s very exciting, even now,” says Anuja with a sparkle in her eye. “The greatest joy is if we see a child running along with one of our toys, that’s really lovely.”
Over the years, Orange Tree Toys has won many awards for its toys at the Junior Design Awards and Independent Toy Awards, among others.
Inspiration continues to come from all around them, not necessarily from looking at other toys, it could be a fabric, a scene, pictures online or something simple in real life. Brilliant new additions this year include a wooden Chinese take away set, complete with chopsticks and spring rolls, and an adorable new puppy collection.
“We’re just constantly thinking what’s next,” Anuja says. “A lot of work goes on behind the scenes by our amazing team.”
A few years ago Orange Tree Toys took on children’s favourite Peter Rabbit, designing the first licensed products, before securing Paddington Bear too.
“That was really fantastic for the business,” says Anuja.
They now produce whole Paddington Bear and Peter Rabbit collections including bookends, music boxes and push ups and are thrilled to have a new Winnie the Pooh range coming out in time for Christmas.
“We were delighted to secure a licence with Disney to produce a Winnie the Pooh collection,” says Anuja.
“A lot of hard work from the entire team went into securing this licence – a great achievement.”
The team at Orange Tree Toys has grown to 18 with roles ranging from design through to office, sales and warehouse management.
“We’re always looking at lots of different ways to expand. We hope to branch out into other children’s products in the next couple of years,” Anuja reveals.
After many years at Lansdown Industrial Estate, the company recently moved to a new office and warehouse at Orchard Trading Estate, in Toddington, which has been completely transformed into a bright, modern and spacious environment, perfect for encouraging creativity and accommodating ever increasing orders.
The design studio, with sleek glass walls, has samples of the new Winnie the Pooh collection waiting to be inspected on a large white table, the colourful showroom is stacked high with beautifully-presented toys, the warehouse is full of boxes ready to be sent out to a thousand small shops all around the country and the large offices look out over breathtaking Cotswold countryside.
It’s a welcoming and inspirational setting which was needed to help the business continue to grow and take on more staff. The sisters are delighted to have completely transformed the space, which used to be home to an engineering company, working on it from March to May this year.
It’s particularly convenient for Lamani, who lives in Toddington, and Anuja who travels in every day from Cheltenham. They managed to bring the entire team with them from Lansdown too.
“It’s exactly what we wanted, it’s great,” says Anuja proudly of the project which was completed in just two-and-a-half months. “A lot of people can’t believe what we have done with it, it looks so different.
“We’re a small team and know each other really well, and it’s great to have a nice environment which is very spacious, light and open. It’s fantastic to have everything in one place.”
The sisters are reaping the rewards of having persevered in the tough early days to now exporting their much-loved toys far and wide, including to Barnes & Noble - the largest bookseller in America.
“When we started the business it was very small and we watched it grow for years.
“But all along we’ve really enjoyed doing what we’ve done,” Anuja says.
“Most of all, the team is really passionate about what we do and we have fun too.”