Monday, March 18, 2013


Guthrie Bendy was formed before I joined Guthrie.

It was losing something like RM200K a month, which was a lot of money then (mid-1980s), and the bleeding continued unabated.

Guthrie Bendy was a joint venture between Guthrie and Bendy Toys of UK. Guthrie would look after production and Bendy Toys, sales and marketing. Its product: foam rubber toys in the form of characters like Disney’s Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Donald Duck etc to Pokie and Gumbie to Bendy’s proprietory names like Paddington Bear and others.

To save cost, it was housed in one of Guthrie’s old rubber factories in Port Dickson. The factory was not far from the Port Dickson town. But to reach it, you have to pass through a Chinese cemetery.

Unfortunately, children did not want these toys anymore. There was no play value in them! Boys now preferred electronically controlled cars and gadgets and girls, Barbies and the likes.

As the new director in-charge, I immediately flew to London to map out a new business plan with Bendy Toys. The product line had to change! Improvements had also to be made to the factory facilities and the process layout. However, because of capital constraints, they could take a back seat for the time being.

Guthrie Bendy’s fortune began to improve dramatically after it began to produce a range of spitting images – caricatured faces of public figures like Queen E, Ronald Reagan, Prince Charles, Margaret Thatcher. The customers? Mainly yuppie adults in the States. They had taste!

The Bendy people were quite a creative lot. They also asked the factory to produce faces for the Halloweens. Some of the faces could look quite scary really.

 Most of the workers in Guthrie Bendy were women. Some of them were young girls. The mid-80s was a tough time for many. Unemployment was high. The factory had no difficulty attracting workers although the working conditions were not very good. Work was simply tough.

The more skilled ones would be assigned to the moulding shop where most of the rejects would occur if control was lax. After the toys had been dried in the oven, they would be distributed to the workers to paint. Colour schemes were predetermined. All the workers had to do was apply the correct paint onto the foam rubber toys.

But when the place is humid and somewhat dark, you get tired easily. Painting Mickey Mouse is one thing; holding and staring at a grotesque Halloween figure is another. Hysteria became the norm of the day. One worker would suddenly stand up and act strangely, and ten would follow immediately. The chain reaction was indeed frightening. Ambulance had to be summoned next.

* * * * *   

A wise man advised: Let’s seek the help of a bomoh.

One was promptly summoned.

He proclaimed, “The place is dirty. Something has to be done.” 

The factory’s manager asked if it was alright with me if the factory followed the bomoh’s advice. Some sacrifices had to be offered to the hantu.

“Sure, go ahead.”

“Would you like to observe the ceremony?”

 * * * * *     

I arrived after the ceremony was over; just in time to sample a little of the yellow rice and goat meat that was offered to me.

The people were happy that I cared.

* * * * *    

I reported the hysteria to the management committee of Guthrie and everyone was concerned. They asked me to do what I could.

* * * * *   

My prescription was slightly more conventional. We had to improve the working conditions.

An adequate canteen was built; the operator was given a modest subsidy so that he could sell food and drinks at affordable prices. Trees were planted to provide shades all round.

On the production floors, fans and fluorescent lights were generously installed, and soft music was piped in. Kettles of tea were conveniently placed; workers could help themselves anytime.

Four painters were assigned to each table; right in the middle was the “standard” they had to follow.

* * * * *   

I did not hear of any hysteria after that any more.

Who is the more effective bomoh?

Maybe we complemented each other.

* * * * *      

When the management accounts showed that we had wiped out the accumulated losses and clocked up more than RM1 million  - after only nine months - I thought we should reward our colleagues. Tan Sri Rashdan was all for it.

We decided that we should have the annual shutdown and bused the workers, spouses included, to Singapore for a three-day, all expenses-paid holiday. That represented the first time out of Port Dickson, and the chance to stay in an air-con hotel, for many.

Six months later, another trip was organised to Penang. Again all expenses were borne by the company.

You could feel their enthusiasm each time you walked past your colleagues in the factory.

* * * * * 

Charles Neufeld, like many British inventors, does not quite believe taste changes with time. He created a range of foam rubber toys. The first few were essentially the squirted variety – bath toys in the shape of animals like tortoise and elephant. He moved on to secure rights to mould cartoon figures like Pokie and Gumbie. Embedded in the foam was a set of aluminum wire frames that allowed the limbs of the creature to be freely manipulated. These were followed by the Disney characters – Mickey, Goofy, Donald and their colleagues. They were hand-painted and colourfully dressed up. Before the onslaught of electronics, miracle plastics and powder metallurgy, Bendy was the perfect gift for kids.

Charles Neufeld went around in a Rolls Royce and paid thousands of pounds a year for a covered garage within walking distance from the Harrods. He also maintained an apartment nearby.

After he made his fortune, he bought a large tract of land in Ashford and on it he built a factory complex. But by the 80s, Bendy was already a spent force in the toy industry. Its profits in Ashford were shrinking fast. The rental income was more than what he could make from toy making.

Guthrie was looking for business opportunities. Charles had been buying latex from Guthrie’s London office for years. The “synergy” was apparent to Guthrie; a joint venture was duly put together. Bendy Toys would move its production facilities, lock-stock-and-barrel to Malaysia.

The honeymoon was enjoyable. Charles and his brother Harry had the chance to sample the idyllic life at Port Dickson where Guthrie kept a beautiful holiday bungalow. They came often. Guthrie appropriately presented Bendy toys as souvenirs to visitors, foreign and local alike.

* * * * *     

Neufelds soon took delivery of hundreds of thousands of ringgits of made-in-Malaysia Bendy toys. But few were sold. Some of the toys were found to be as hard as stones; others too soft like jelly. Paintwork was inconsistent – some meticulously done; others ridiculously sloppy.

Neufelds began to go slow on payments. Orders started to dry up. Workers had to be paid and overheads looked after. Guthrie Bendy soon became a “dog” in management jargon, kicking up a hundred thousand ringgit of losses every month.

I was asked to “rescue” the company.

* * * * *   

The factory was at that time headed by a chemist seconded from Guthrie’s research unit. 

It was obvious to me that he had never worked in a factory setting before – no standard operating procedures, no production planning and control, no…..

And the terrible humidity!

The place was originally a SMR (Standard Malaysian Rubber) factory. The pitch of the roofs was steep. Most of the buildings had no walls. The factory looked terrible. Certainly very unGuthrie!

One of the first things I did was to ask the factory manager to improve the general working conditions. Ceiling fans were to be bought and trees planted along the perimeters of the buildings.

He was all for the measures.


* * * * *     

With the fans, the place was still as humid as ever, although the factory was in the midst of a mature oil palm estate.

Yes, the fans were there, but it was all hot air up and hot air down. The manager had installed the standard household ceiling fans! The stems were not modified to take into account of the steep pitch roofs. And he did not realize that!

I knew I had to change horse soon. This gentleman had forgotten his Physics.

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