Playtop: Nigel Allen

The business that is making a fortune from old tyres

Those who worship the ground England’s John Terry and Wayne Rooney walk on may care to know it’s supported by tiny rubber granules fashioned from old tyres.

The rest of us probably don’t care to give it a second thought. For Playtop’s managing director Nigel Allen though, it’s worth £6m a year in revenues. And it’s not only the pampered millionaire footballers who need it to cushion their every step. You’ll find the company’s recycled material at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Euro Disney in France and the Emperor’s Gardens in Tokyo.

The patented impact-absorbing surfacing makes children’s falls near-painless in playgrounds and offers a bouncy experience between rides at Alton Towers. In fact, Nottinghamshire and Midlothian-based Playtop can boast that more than a million square metres of its surfaces now cover the earth through its global network of licensees.

The company started out as a division of the family business, the Charles Lawrence Group (Allen’s uncle). Allen joined in 1977 when the group’s porous rubber surfaces were laid onto asphalt or concrete in playgrounds.

Through medical research, which proved deceleration to be the crucial factor in preventing brain injury during a fall, Playtop modified its technology, ultimately perfecting the elastic properties of its surfaces to offer greater protection.

Five years ago, the division became a stand-alone company, headed by Allen, who bought out original investor 3i. It quickly cornered the UK’s surfacing market, which Allen estimates is worth between £30m and £40m, prompting its global assault. With a shrewd international business development manager working closely with foreign embassies and government support services, Playtop has secured lucrative partnership deals in India, the Far East and across Europe.

“It’s difficult for us to contract internationally, so we license to companies that install our product,” Allen explains. “We provide them with training, technical back-up and marketing support, and now have clients in 20 countries.”

Playtop is even set to crack the US, thanks to a somewhat unlikely alliance with Nike. “Nike is keen to get us into the States,” Allen says. “That will be quite a challenge because there are plenty of companies doing this type of thing there. But because of the brand and what Nike brings, we believe we’ll be competitive.”

The move will see Playtop use Nike’s recycled training shoes in its surfaces, becoming a partner in its mammoth corporate responsibility programme. Playtop’s export sales have risen 150% over the past three years and in April the company won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise for international trade. And this is just the start. “We don’t need a large increase in overhead or back-office staff to expand our number of new licensees,” says Allen, pointing out that the company still has just 30 employees. Unarguably one to watch, but Allen’s feet remain firmly rooted to the ground.


Company: Playtop

Launched: 1977 (officially as its own company in 2001)

Founder: Charles Lawrence

Turnover: ?6m

Employees: 30


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