Taking inspiration from China, toilet tissue maker The Cheeky Panda is on a roll

After spending most of his career working in recruitment, Chris Forbes found himself convinced by wife Julie’s idea for a new kind of toilet tissue and the couple flew to China to make The Cheeky Panda a reality

Taking inspiration from China

Inspiration can come from anywhere, whether that’s a book, TV, film or people. It can also be brought on from other experiences such as places and cultures. So, with that in mind, China is surely one of the most obvious locations rich with heritage and influence, capable of stoking up the flames of innovation for an entrepreneur.

This was the case for Chris and Julie Forbes, husband and wife founders of The Cheeky Panda, the bamboo-based tissue manufacturer. Prior to his involvement in the business, Chris Forbes spent two decades running an executive search firm. Detailing the switch, he says: “I’d spent a lot of time working up to board-level with companies like PwC and world-class procurement and supply chains and we were able to use those principles when we set out in the beginning with Cheeky Panda.”

After spending much of his career in recruitment, it begs the question: where did the move into toilet roll production com from? Forbes explains it was his wife’s idea as she’s originally from China – home of bamboo. “She’d been talking to me about it for a year and said ‘I have this idea for a bamboo tissue company’,” he recalls. “I thought it sounded great but it was one of those things I didn’t have my mind on before we decided to do something with it.”

His focus soon landed on it when the pair flew to China in December 2015 to meet Julie’s parents, a trip that mixed business with pleasure as the couple also jetted to the mountains to investigate bamboo. “The thing that inspired me was the scale of the bamboo harvest, which is absolutely gigantic,” Forbes details. “They can probably produce over a billion pounds of bamboo pulp a year.” Compared to trees which can take 18 years at least to grow, bamboo is the fastest-growing plant in the world and Forbes notes that the sustainability opportunity was a key driver behind the Cheeky Panda ethos.

Interestingly, although part of the ambition was to create a tissue that would have an environmental benefit, it’s also had health perks too. “Unbeknownst to us, most tissue in the UK is from virgin pulp and recycled pulp – and recycled pulp comes from newspapers, copier paper and has to go through an intensive bleaching and de-inking process,” says Forbes. “And as part of that you end up with all sorts of nasty chemicals in it.” It turns out the release of Cheeky Panda’s bamboo-based tissue had unintentionally become a health product as allergy sufferers wrote to the business saying they hadn’t had any reaction to the tissue. “By doing the right things well you get unexpected results,” Forbes says. “On a planet of stretched resources we should be looking for more eloquent solutions in terms of using everyday products.”

To get their operations off the ground in the market, Forbes was pleasantly surprised by the calibre of the partners and said their factories look better than ones here in the west. “The back-end was exceptionally modern and efficient, with all sorts of modern manufacturing and recycling,” he says. “There’s also the ethos and they’ve got a philosophy there, which they incorporate into how they treat their people and the community. It’s really cool.” He also expected the country to be more bureaucratic than it was but reveals: “It’s kind of a screw it, just do it attitude. We’ve developed products that never existed in the market before and it only took three months.”

Being Chinese, Julie was invaluable when securing local partnerships. Apart from that she’d had experience in operating a shoe business, which meant importing from China and selling across Europe. “There are lots of people in terms of manufacturers and sales officers, so she knows how to navigate the potentially difficult minefield to find the right people,” Forbes says. “I think it would be very difficult for a western person sourcing from China to do what we’ve done.” 

Cheeky Panda wasted no time in pushing the business forward after returning from China as Forbes quickly secured the support of Invest Essex, a regional business growth network, over a meal with an executive. “I put a loo roll on the table while he was in the middle of the curry and said ‘right then, you can help me with this’,” he laughs. “And his response was ‘Chris, I look after £100m plus businesses’ and I went ‘I know, that’s why you can help me with this’.” 

The bamboo business ran a crowdfunding campaign at the end of February 2016, which was overfunded when it closed at the start of April. It gave the founders confidence there was an appetite for the products as well as brand awareness. With sales officially kicking off in August and beginning at £10,000 a month, which Forbes calls “not bad for our first month.” Cheeky Panda has continued to scale. “It’s grown exponentially from there, he says. “We started selling internationally from early on,” he says. In addition to the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium are among the key markets the business serves.

Closing on how lucrative looking overseas for inspiration has been, Forbes concludes: “We’re a brand that’s about to go mainstream. We’re in the stage of completing some proper investments, which will put our value to around £20m. Our current turnover is £1m but we’re looking to get to £5m turnover by 2019 based on existing contracts. You can take inspiration from international markets but you have to understand how to adapt it for your market.” 

Zen Terrelonge
Zen Terrelonge

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