Holdson’s Fleur Tisdale reveals what made I.D.I.O.T. winner Simon Holdsworth remarkable

Fleur Tisdale, Holdson, I.D.I.O.T. Award, Simon Holdsworth

Fleur Tisdale!
Good morning! Well, no… Good evening for you!

But good morning for you! Thanks for joining me.
Thanks for meeting with me, Deej. I’m excited to talk with you! I really think what you’re doing is fantastic; talking to the I.D.I.O.T. Award winners, these legends in the toy industry…

Oh, you’re very kind. We’re getting there, but I wish we could’ve started it ten years ago. So… we’re going to talk about the I.D.I.O.T. Award winner Simon Holdsworth. For context, you’re the Managing Director of what was Thos Holdsworth & Sons Ltd, trading as Holdson Ltd. in New Zealand. For those of us that are oceans away, Holdson is a hugely recognisable name there?
Yes, I would say so. I think around 95 to 98% of people would have recognition of the Holdson logo in New Zealand. We often joke about that, actually. We say if there’s not a Holdson product in somebody’s home around New Zealand then we’ve not done our jobs properly!

Happily, though, people often write to us and say something like, “Oh my God! I’ve got one of your games that goes back to 1955 – we love it.” They’ll say the family still plays it the whole time; they send us little photos and videos – all that kind of thing. It’s a wonderful heritage.

That’s amazing. So let’s start there, Fleur… How old IS Holdson? And for what is it best known?
Jigsaws! Jigsaws is how the company got its start. And that’s way back in 1939. Back then, Thomas Holdsworth – who would later become Simon’s grandfather – ran a little business with his two sons, Alf and Harry. This was down in High Street in the centre of Auckland. But that business was a book binder. Their front door backed onto the back door of a retailer by the name of Whitcomb and Tombs.

Fleur Tisdale, Holdson, I.D.I.O.T. Award, Simon Holdsworth

Whitcomb and Tombs? What did they do?
Today, they’ve merged and changed a little; they’re called Whitcoulls. They’re almost like your WH Smith… A nice book and stationery store. In 1939, though, Whitcomb and Tombs was looking for product, and one of the owners got talking to Alf Holdsworth and said, “Why don’t you do something useful with your life and make me some product I can sell?” And Alf said, “Well, like what?”

One of the examples that popped up was jigsaw puzzles… Because, in those days, puzzles had a very expensive import tariff associated with them. So they were very, very difficult to import. Anyway, the Holdsworth family all met up and had a conversation over the dinner table… There was quite a big family of the girls, the boys and Thomas. And in the end Thomas got to thinking, he was sure they could do something…

But he really knows nothing about jigsaws?
No, exactly right. But Thomas rang a very good friend of his who was the managing director of Allen Calendars. They made calendars with lovely images; pictorial photos. Thomas said, “Listen mate, do you have any overrun calendars? Or any printing that you don’t use? We want to have a bash at trying to create a puzzle!” So sure enough, Mr. Allen said yes! You know, “Come and grab however many you need. Just give me something at the end of the month once you figure out what’s happening.”

Wow! Everything’s so casual!
So that’s what they did: the Holdsworths went and grabbed their first however many calendars… Then they thought: All right… We’ve got images. Now what do we do? And then they went and bought some plywood – typical Kiwi ingenuity – but discovered that it wasn’t easy to affix the prints to the plywood. They finally found some kind of glue that worked. And then they started wondering: how are we going to cut this?

I’m reminding myself this is in 1939! They couldn’t jump online to learn how to make a jigsaw puzzle – so they’ve no idea how to make the cuts?
Right. Which is pretty critical to a jigsaw! But in the back room was mum’s Singer sewing machine. So the younger brother, Harry, pulled out the whole needle section and inserted a – well, like a knife blade, or cutting tool. It was the ‘aha’ moment! They used a piece of cardboard as a pattern for how to cut… As Simon used to tell the story, they probably stuffed up a good hundred puzzles to begin with.

Fleur Tisdale, Holdson, I.D.I.O.T. Award, Simon Holdsworth

Stuffed up? For our American friends…
Oh! Ruined! They must’ve got it wrong 100 times – trying to get the pressure and the cut right. Everything kept going in the bin, and there was a lot of swearing – all that kind of thing happening at the table. But eventually they figured out exactly how they needed to cut them. And then the girls, the sisters, would sit at the table and just file off any of the really rough edges. Eventually, mum would wrap them in a little bit of clear plastic with a bit of Sellotape on the back…

Then, when they’d got a gross, they’d walk them across the road to Mr. Whitcombe who would stand there with the money. So they’d do an exchange in the street of 144 jigsaws for the cash. And that’s where the business started: in 1939, they put Thomas Holdsworth & Sons down as a jigsaw-puzzle manufacturer. When the war hit, wood became quite a bit more expensive, and the company had to diversify to other products. These included simple boardgames, but puzzles were still the mainstay of the company. In the 1950s, they started to transition to cardboard.

That is a remarkable story; I love that they fathomed it out on the hoof like that! And you must come back, Fleur, and tell us what’s next for Holdson now that you’re the owner. Am I right in saying that Simon Holdsworth passed away in 2020?
That’s correct. At that point, I’d worked for Simon for 35 years. I was very lucky in that my mum was Simon’s personal assistant for many, many years before I joined the business. So my mum and I had a really lovely synergy with Simon… When I was young, my mum said to me, “You’re not going to sit round on your backside and waste the summer…” And she got me a job at Holdson for the school holidays.

What did you do? Take jigsaws across the road for a bag of loot?!
Ha! Not quite! In those days, we had a number of reps on the road, and they needed some in-store demonstrations to be done on some of the product. So my mum brought me in one day, and Simon sat me at the boardroom table. Simon handed me a game and more or less said, “Okay! You’ve got five minutes to learn this… Then you’re going to sell it back to me. And he literally timed me for five minutes and then said, “Right! Sell it back to me!” That was my interview with Simon.

Gosh – that’s really intimidating!
It WAS a bit intimidating! But I like people and I’ve always been a bit of an extrovert where that sort of thing’s concerned… So even though Simon was larger than life, and a bit gruff in the beginning, that was just his way. And if you could deal with that upfront, Simon knew he was onto a winner. If you cowered in the corner and you weren’t going to do anything, or you got too caught up in your own problems, then you weren’t the person for Simon.

I’m really liking Simon! From what I hear, he was very warm if you knew him, but quite direct; quite down to earth…
Oh yes, very down to earth and 100% direct. Absolutely. Simon was very easy to read – be that good or bad!

Fleur Tisdale, Holdson, I.D.I.O.T. Award, Simon Holdsworth

What other qualities defined him, do you think?
You know, after Simon passed away, I sent out an email. Well… The responses that came back were absolutely amazing. I think the thing that stuck in my mind the most was the amount of people who said that A) he was a pure gentleman, and B) that he had an absolute heart of gold. He would be there for anybody, no matter what… And at any time. Lots of colleagues and friends talked about his rapier wit, which was first class, and his love of Grand Marnier…

Simon also had a lovely devil-in-your-eye twinkle, which was amazing. He loved a good yarn… He was a brilliant raconteur and could really hold a room. I think that’s something everybody remembered about Simon. When he passed away, that outpouring of love was fantastic – and it came from literally from all around the world.

And on that, he was a familiar face at the various toy fairs, was he not?
Oh, absolutely! He never missed a fair; he loved them… He travelled the international circuit for the best part of 40 years. Hong Kong, London, Nuremberg, New York… They were his absolute favourite events. He made some lifelong friendships with people all over the world. He was just that kind of character; he was so warm and totally genuine that people just – I don’t know! They were like bees round a honeypot. They just came to Simon. It was incredible.

You talk about him so affectionately; I’m sure that’ll come off the page. And Fleur, I mightn’t say this ordinarily but, clearly, his passing must’ve been a great loss to you…
Absolutely. Huge, huge. Massive.

Yes. I’m… Gosh. You know, for me it never seems too late to say this: I’m so sorry for your loss. He sounds remarkable.
Thank you. He was… He was a really remarkable guy. And you know, he sits looking over me in the office! I have a couple of beautiful photos of Simon that sit on my bookcase. This one is Simon graduating when he was younger; he got a law degree…

Fleur Tisdale, Holdson, I.D.I.O.T. Award, Simon Holdsworth

And this photo is my all time favourite. To me, this sums up Simon in the toy industry. We were at New Zealand Toy Fair. We were doing a range called Estrella. It had a musical instrument line, including a tiny piano… And Simon couldn’t resist! He was singing at the top of his lungs, trying to play the piano. That’s what brought him joy – bringing toys to New Zealand that were going to be heirlooms or generational toys to come into families, homes and that type of thing.

Family was deeply important to Simon. Not only his grandfather and his father and his mother, but also his brothers and sisters, who all – over the years – worked in the business, along with some cousins. So it really was a family affair. He was a diamond in the rough in a lot of regards, but what a guy. Amazing.

Oh, you’ve done him such justice. What I’m trying to figure out is what one characteristic, above any other, made Simon successful?
I think his sheer tenacity, if I’m completely honest with you… Simon was a guy that just didn’t give up. If Simon could see an opportunity, no matter what it took, he would get there. It might not happen for him straight away, but if he could see that there was something greater on the horizon, he would just keep sticking at it.

Can you give me an example of that?
Absolutely! Not only are we a manufacturer in the New Zealand market, but we also import key brands from around the world. And I was lucky enough to travel with Simon on a couple of introductory occasions… Occasions on which we were putting our hat in the ring for new brands or ranges. One time, when Simon and I were at the London Toy Fair, Peter Brown – the MD of Flair in the UK – told us to look at something that hadn’t been run in the New Zealand market for a long time: Sylvanian Families, owned by Epoch.

Oh wow!
Over the course of that fair, we spent a good six or seven hours with Peter – and he offered to introduce us to Epoch’s MD, Mr Maeda san. So we had this lovely introductory meeting with Peter and Mr Maeda san, with Simon and I doing our bit and Peter saying all the right things about us and what we could bring to the table. Long story short: we knew this was going to take some convincing, but Simon kept going in his own magnetic way… Letters and calls to keep us top of mind – plus Peter was doing the same, too. If memory serves, it was a three-year challenge for us to be given the distribution rights for New Zealand.

Fleur Tisdale, Holdson, I.D.I.O.T. Award, Simon Holdsworth

Do you think he was testing you? Measuring your dedication to get the business?
Quite possibly, yes… To see how tenacious we were about wanting his brand. So we had to work it. But Simon’s ethos was, “It’s not a no! Let’s not give up… You and I are going to be like a dog with a bone. We’re just going to keep on until we get to a point where he might say yes – or thank you, but no.” So that was always how Simon thought about things, and his tenacity was what got us an awful lot of ranges at the various toy fairs.

And at the London Toy Fair, of course, the UK Inventors Dinner takes place. When Simon was given the I.D.I.O.T. Award at that event, how did he feel? Did he say?
Oh, he absolutely did. I’d been to a couple of the dinners with Simon… I think I was pregnant that particular year, though, so I missed it… Simon, as you may know, wasn’t a gushy person by any stretch of the imagination. But I know for a fact that he was very overwhelmed when he got the award because I have it on good authority that he was actually a bit tearful. Which makes sense… Knowing he’d been accepted and received into that industry to such a degree. So yes… It may not always have come across as an important thing to Simon, but deep down there was an absolute, resounding sentiment of pride. It really meant a lot to him.

Well, to round this off, Fleur, if we were looking to – I don’t know if this is the best way to put it – if we were looking to memorialise Simon here, what would you say is his professional legacy?
Well, first: the Holdson name. I think deep down in Simon’s heart, he always wanted that name to continue. The legacy of his grandfather was really special for him; it meant a lot to him that he was keeping his grandfather’s business alive. Not an easy thing to do in this day and age when you’ve got China knocking on your door at ridiculous prices. So to keep a manufacturing plant in Auckland as a profitable business is something that he was always very proud of.

He also loved the idea of giving people an opportunity to come and work in this business. Over the years, people have come and gone, of course, but if you talk to anyone that worked here, they’ll still remember their time as being great fun. People loved Simon as a person and as a boss. He just had a natural way of inspiring other people to attain their best selves. And that’s really special. And you don’t get that with people that often. Sorry, that’s made me very emotional… So for Tracy Hill – our sourcing director – and me, who worked with him for as long as we did, we’re proud to take on the next phase of Holdson in his memory. He… He was… He was a great man. Sorry!

Fleur Tisdale, Holdson, I.D.I.O.T. Award, Simon Holdsworth

No, please don’t be… I would… I’d rather sit here and weep with you, Fleur, than push on and not understand how great he was.
Yes… I know. Yes. I mean, really, Deej… He’s the kind of guy… Words fail me to really tell you just how important a person he actually was.

Well, it would be very easy for me to finish the interview and edit it in such a way that no one needs to know how emotional we got! And while it would be easy, it would be disingenuous because what matters is that you’ve paid tribute to a brilliant man – and you’ve done it so beautifully, Fleur. I’m so sorry he’s passed.
Thank you. And thank you for the opportunity to talk about him.

Not at all. Genuinely, it’s my privilege.

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