Chariots of Wire

There’s much diversification in agriculture especially in the current economic climate, but it’s unexpected to find a fully operational toy manufacturing plant on a Free State grain farm. Annelie Coleman spoke to husband and wife team and Beate about their Africars and Vienna toys, also exhibited at Nampo.
Issue date : 27 2008

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Eduard and Beate Dreyer took over and expanded the wire car manufacturing business that Eduard’s parents started in 1988 and have since developed a successful toy manufacturing plant on their farm Vienna in the Bothaville district. “Our toys are a financial backstop for us,” explains Eduard, “and although the business is not as profitable as people might think, it gives us a steady income that’s not so influenced by the whims of the market as farming is.

Farming, however, remains our main line of business.” The toys are divided into Africars (wire cars) and Vienna Toys (pre-school and educational toys) and are run independently. “It’s important to keep the businesses apart. It makes financial management easier and prevents cross-subsidising. We need to calculate profitability to the last cent and sound financial planning is key to the survival of both brands,” Beate says.

The elements of success A ny business needs sound financial management, says Eduard, but that’s just one part of the whole. “We are especially proud of our team of workers. We value the team ethos and believe in ongoing communication. They are all part of the creative process, which is vital to our success.” he team consists of 19 people and in a small rural community such as Bothaville, that’s a significant number of job opportunities. Eduard says the staff is passionate about what they do, constantly learning new skills such as welding, painting and precision measurement. “Without their dedication and drive it would’ve been impossible for us to carry on. Our team is key to our growth,” says Eduard.

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He emphasises that in the toy business, you can’t afford to stagnate and you have to produce new ideas and new products to stay on top of the game. “My advice to any person who wants to start a business such as ours is to take time for research, planning and reflection. It’s not something you can jump into and you must also remember that it takes five years to properly establish a business. Most importantly, there’s no such thing as a ‘get rich quick’ system – it takes hard work and perseverance.”

Running an additional business on a busy farm is hard work and for Beate, self-knowledge was the most valuable thing she has learned since they took over the business. “You must know your strengths and weaknesses, and must be prepared to go into partnerships with people who can complement you and your business. It’s no use trying to do everything yourself, because you’ll eventually end up failing,” she says. It all began in a shed In 1988 Eduard’s mother Ems, who is a social worker, and father Drikkie started making wire cars with a team of five farmworkers’ children living on their farm, following serious political unrest in the local schools.

The youngsters had dropped out and the couple saw the wire cars as an opportunity to empower them to earn a decent living. One member of the original group, Kgapane Makaui, who grew up on the farm, is still with the business and is now the floor manager. “The schools were burning down and they became unsafe, so we didn’t go any more,” he recalls. “We could not find work anywhere, until Mrs Ems and Mr Drikkie started with the cars.” Whereas Eduard and Beate are now running a modern and fully equipped manufacturing plant, Ems and her team did everything by hand. Kgapane explains, “We used ordinary wire for the cars and old shoe polish tins for the wheels, until Mr Drikkie became involved.

He designed wood wheels and also started painting the cars. I remember we made a range of six cars in those days, including a Mercedes, a bakkie, a kombi and a large truck. We worked in the farm shed between the tractors, but today we have our own building with modern equipment and it’s much easier now.” Eduard and Beate take over Eduard, an engineer, had kept his eye on the wire car business over the years. Even as a university student, he spent his holidays modernising the process with a proper production line.

Then his father installed a powdercoating plant, which made the paint durable and ensured less spillage. “When Beate and I eventually settled on the farm in 1996, we moved the operation to a separate building and upgraded the entire process, doubling production,” says Eduard. Twenty-thousand cars per annum “Production increased from 400 cars a month [4 800 cars annually] to our current 20 000 cars annually, because of the modern equipment and the popularity of the product,” says Beate.

The designs are a team effort, after which Kgapane builds a prototype of the new model that everyone has chosen. Eduard then makes some changes to bring the dimensions into proportion. The Dreyers make a range of 12 wire car models, including a Toyota Land Cruiser complete with canvas tents and a 4×4 bush wagon, as well as a range of accessories such as trailers and caravans. “Our largest item is a 26-wheel road train – every little boy’s dream chariot of wire,” says Beate.

Their 4×4 range is especially close to Eduard’s heart and they’re planning to expand it to include most of the best-known models on the market and then sell them exclusively at camping and outdoor shops. “It seems as if our cars have become collector’s items,” says Beate proudly. ”We have regular customers who buy every new model we put on the market.”

The Dreyers’ products are sold at 200 outlets countrywide, both directly and through a network of agents. “We also exhibit at arts festivals, but don’t take part in agricultural shows anymore because we can’t compete with the cheap products from abroad,” says Beate. “But the Nampo Harvest Day remains our premier exhibition. We’ve been there for the past 15 years and have done consistently well. Nampo is our thirteenth cheque, so to speak.” Export opportunities The wire cars can be found all over the country and are priced from R65 for a trailer to R335 for the interlink truck. “For us, they symbolise the friendship between children in rural areas,” says Beate.

“The large number of expats has also created excellent export opportunities for us and we are currently in negotiations with ex-South Africans living in Canada and the UK in this regard. Eduard has even helped someone in Tasmania who wanted to start making wire cars there.” Contact Africars on (056) 515 3423 and Vienna Toys on (056) 515 1283 |fw

Diversification into Vienna Toys

“In business, it’s important to explore new avenues and that’s why we branched out into Vienna Toys three years ago,” Beate explains. “We found that there was a demand for educational toys in particular and decided to investigate this. We initially marketed our products through nursery schools, but the demand increased to such an extent that we now sell on the open market.” It’s quite strange to find a big, strapping, young farmer working with delicate toys, but Eduard is justifiably proud of their new enterprise.

“This new ‘baby’ of ours has proved very successful. The range includes hand-painted jigsaw puzzles and fantasy toys such as small ironing boards and irons. Our latest invention is called the ‘Kiddy Big Dig’, which helps develop children’s coordination. In total, we manufacture 30 different products, most of which we developed and designed ourselves.” “Our hand-painted jigsaw puzzles sell particularly well and come from four to 65 pieces,” says Beate.

“Another product we’re proud of is a three-dimensional board that tests a child’s spatial orientation, which Eduard and I designed.” The Dreyers have extensive plans for Vienna Toys. They’re currently expanding their distribution network in the Western Cape and working on a new range of toys to develop children’s fine motor skills.