March 7, 2012

A Brief History Of Maclaren, The Folding Stroller Company

As I was saying the other day in the New York Times [ahem], "The corporate behavior here seems out of step with my perceptions of the Maclaren brand as a parent."

Which really got me thinking about what I actually think of Maclaren, anyway? Yes, there's the British thing, and the "designed by aircraft engineers," thing. And I know that the first model's in MoMA's design collection.

And there's been a lot of designer colabos attempting to turn the utilitarian object into a fashion accessory. But the overriding image of Maclaren has to be the one that was burned into my mind before I ever had a kid: they were the daily workhorse of basically every family in uptown Manhattan.

This perception is all based entirely on what I cobble together as a parent/customer/observer; it's a subjective and immediate, but limited. And for some folks, maybe the performance is all that matters: does the stroller get the job done without chopping my kid's fing--whatever, you get the point.

But the inveterate brand and business school nerd in me now wants more. And so on the off chance that quick rundowns of convoluted corporate histories might be useful antidotes to relentless and/or manipulative marketing designed to induce you to shop, here is a brief timeline for Maclaren, the folding [heh] stroller company:

1944: Engineer Owen Maclaren establishes his own firm, Andrews Maclaren, Ltd.

1961: Andrews Maclaren releases its first consumer product, the Gadabout, a scissor-folding camp chair made of tubular aluminum.

1965: After his daughter complains of traveling with a pram, Maclaren invents and patents [in the UK] the umbrella-style folding buggy. He calls it the B-01 [top].
He shops it around the industry, including Massachusetts baby gear manufacturer Collier-Keyworth.

1966: Owen Maclaren files for a US patent, which is issued in 1968.

1967: Andrews Maclaren manufactures 1,000 Baby Buggies in his stable and begins selling them around February.

1970: The B-01 was acquired for MoMA's design collection.

1970: After some unsuccessful attempts to license the B-01 for manufacture, two dudes in Westchester, an HBS grad named Deaver Brown [below, right] and his former prep school roommate Alex Goodwin [below, left] launch a startup called Cross River Products to sell what they call the "Umbroller." They knew they'd get sued for patent infringement, and they were right.

umbroller_dudes_nyt73.jpg

1973: The NY Times writes a boosterish article on Cross River making it sound like their knockoffery was actual invention, and which prompted a long and damning corrective from Owen Maclaren [both PDF, that second one also contains a scathing letter to the editor from Gloria Steinem, excoriating the Times for misleading her about an article they'd interviewed her for, which turned out to be, just as she'd feared and protested in advance, about Those Sexy Feminists Who Still Love Their Fancy Clothes.]

1975: Cross River was found to have willfully infringed Maclaren's patent. [read the decision in Maclaren vs B-I-W Group here] Cross River ended up getting acquired by Newell Rubbermaid and Graco. Deaver Brown got busted in 2009 for running a low-grade Ponzi scheme on his friends and neighbors in Massachusetts.

1976: Maclaren reports they're making around 600,000 buggies/year in the UK and exporting 280,000 of them.

1978: Owen Maclaren is knighted, and dies. Not quite sure what was going on during the next decade, but they were selling strollers.

1985: The NYT says Maclarens are the "stroller of choice," but only on the Upper West Side. Apricas dominate the Upper East Side. These two neighborhoods constitute the entirety of stroller-pushing Manhattan.

1988: Andrews Maclaren, which had a 30% share of the UK buggy market, was acquired by Hestair PLC, an employment services firm, which also acquired a smaller british stroller company, Cindico. The company became Hestair Maclaren, and sold "Maclaren Cindico" strollers, like the one below, which was just on ebay UK.

maclaren_cindico_ebayuk.jpg

1989-90: Hestair was acquired by BET, an industrial conglomerate, in a hostile takeover, for GBP 192 million, around $302 million.

1990: Private equity shop Everpart Ltd backs a management-led buyout of Hestair Maclaren from BET. The company is now called Maclaren Group, Ltd, so I owe Farzad Rastegar an apology on that front.

1994: Laser dinghy manufacturer Sunleigh PLC executes a reverse takeover of Maclaren Group, financing a cash-heavy, GBP 19.2 million buyout with a public share offering. UK market share at the time is cited as 30%, with £26 million sales and a £2.3m operating profit.

The group planned to expand Maclaren's business through exports - currently 17 per cent - and by using the brand name on other products, such as cribs and cradles, he said.

Sunleigh also owns Powakaddy, which manufactures powered golf trolleys.

Interesting. A blurb in the FT said Maclaren "has introduced new product lines and substantially reduced its cost base" and would pay its first dividend "since 1989."

1996: Albion Consortium Fund, run by Jack Lyons and Farzad Rastegar, began acquiring shares of Sunleigh, controlling 74% of the company by 1997. [pdf]

1998: A "cash crisis" precipitated Albion taking the company private.

1999: American Baby Products, Inc. was established to own the North American distribution subsidiary, Maclaren USA, Inc.

2000-01: This guy was working on asset disposition for Sunleigh, which he described as "an English holding company that control brand-name companies including Maclaren (strollers), Ronson (cigarette lighters) and Laser (sailboats)."

2000: Maclaren launches the Techno.

February 2001: Maclaren launches the Titanium Edition, an all titanium stroller with black leather seat and canopy by Bill Amberg. With production limited to 1,000 units, which sell for $2,000, it is really the beginning of the premium stroller insanity. And it is the world's awesomest stealth stroller.

March 2001: Maclaren is put into receivership, owing creditors £11.5m and with a pension fund deficit of £4m. 150 workers in the company's Northampton factory were laid off. In an article titled, "Maclaren builds last buggy," a spokesman for KPMG, which ran the liquidation, said, "The company was turning over £15m but it was a pretty battered brand...Unsecured creditors are not likely to see much back from the company."

Farzad Rastegar, who owned the rest of Sunleigh, "bought back the Maclaren brand and assets for £700,000."

2004-2009: All that you know from reading Daddy Types. Look it up. But.

2006 Reported revenues (losses) for Maclaren Europe, Ltd:
£19.2 m, (1.5m)

2007: Maclaren releases the embarrassing GB Type Au, a gold carbon-fiber and leather disasterwagon with a 9k gold detachable Mac logo.

2007: £23 m, (1.9m)

2008 £31 m, (3.7m) [scribd]

2009: Rastegar makes blog comments on Maclaren's massive recall--which now seems to extend back to the creation of Maclaren USA and ABP, not to the receivership, is that right?--and the call center and website crashes that turned it into a PR crisis management case study.

And that's about where we are. You know, for better and worse, the Maclaren we know, in this decade's generation of parents, is basically the product of Rastegar's management. There's a lot of really excellent product [amputation issues notwithstanding, and remember, they have still only been recalled in the US], and a lot of fashion. But it's also clear that bankruptcy and screwed-over creditors and employees are part of the Rastegar Maclaren tradition, too.

And we apparently see that even before the big recall, at the height of the consumer frenzy, when revenue was growing strongly, Maclaren was also losing money at a steady, even increasing, rate. £7.1 million pounds, around $11 million, in the three boomiest years alone. Surely it is only Rastegar's dedication to aviation/lawn chair/stroller engineer Owen Maclaren's singular vision that the sailboat/lighter/stroller mogul has kept the perennially money-losing company alive for 15 years. Truly a labor of love. Also transfer pricing, third-party offshore IP licensing, and global corporate tax regime shopping.

4 Comments

where can we buy buggys from 70s 80s?

Still using gadabout chairs - we have two
probably 30 yrs + - am looking for equivalent e.g. comfy, lightweight,convenient to carry and stow away!
Len Shekleton

I recently found my Maclaren Buggy stroller (from the 70's) in the attic see there:
http://papacuisineetmamanbricole.overblog.com/-vintage-ma-poussette-maclaren-original-buggy

Is there a market for a vintage 60's maclaren buggy, brown and white stripe, if so what price would you start at and who to contact please. Thanks

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