Playground maker in full swing after deciding to go it alone

Everything is to play for now that the company designs its own products

Many of Dublin's children were delighted last week with the opening of the new playground in Merrion Square. It was designed, built and installed by the Children's Playground Company and highlights the company's commitment to sustainability and the creation of challenging play spaces for children.

Based in Naas, Co Kildare, the company is owned by a husband-and-wife team: Dutch-born Rinske Wassenaar and Charleville native Gerry O'Sullivan.

Wassenaar, a former art teacher, heads up the design team, having worked in playground design in Ireland and Germany, while O’Sullivan co-ordinates the manufacturing and maintenance side of the business.

Going from just three employees last year, the company now employs 14 people, including design and administration staff, highly skilled carpenters and engineers, and staff at their new rope-manufacturing facility in Kilkeel outside Naas.

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Moving to Ireland from Germany, where they met, the couple established the company in 2001 and began producing playgrounds under an agency agreement with a German manufacturer, largely for the UK market. At the height of the boom they had a turnover of about €4 million, producing playgrounds for county and city councils and schools.

Serious blow

With the downturn in public spending, the couple suffered a serious blow about a year and a half ago when the German agency with which they had been affiliated severed their agreement due to dissatisfaction with profits. It was make-or-break time for the Children’s Playground Company. The couple realised that, having built up a strong reputation for quality products and services, it was time to pick up their business and run with it.

“When the German company went out, lots of other companies approached us but we thought that really the best thing to do was to go it alone,” says O’Sullivan. “We put the question to the councils: ‘Would you support us?’ They said 100 per cent that they would back us, that small manufacturers are far more important to the economy than multinationals.”

Since May last year, they have set up their own manufacturing facilities at Naas and Kilkeel, where playgrounds made from the hardwood robinia are designed and manufactured from scratch.

It’s a gamble that has paid off – the business has maintained its reputation in the playground space in the UK, from whence they get up to 15 inquiries each week. Turnover is increasing and, since Christmas, they have worked on 12 projects across Britain, including an award-winning playground at Kings Garden, Southport.

The recent addition of the rope-manufacturing facility makes the company a more self-sufficient enterprise.

Tied down by ropes

“The problem with ropes is that any of the manufacturers are all tied in with multinationals so their ropes to us are outrageously expensive. We did a bit of research, we went to Sweden and bought machines ourselves, and our staff were trained in Barnsley in Yorkshire. We are probably now the only independent rope company in Europe. The machines cost us around €25,000.”

Their recent project for Merrion Square exhibits the company's ethos for strong design credentials (it is based on Oscar Wilde's story The Selfish Giant, with a wooden giant emerging from the earth); their knowledge of child-development research; and their sustainability values.

The company’s equipment bears international safety standards certification, and German quality and safety agency TUV described the company as “in the champion’s league of playground manufacturing”.

Going it alone bodes well for the company. “The UK market has been our main market for the last 12 years but it looks like we may have cracked the Irish market, though it has taken us a long time,” says O’Sullivan, who hopes to build 20 playgrounds in Britain and 15 in Ireland this year.

They are working with Dublin City Council and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, something O’Sullivan describes as a “major boost” for the company.

“We began manufacturing on the basis of our good name. Our turnover now is touching €1 million. We expect to progress from there,” says O’Sullivan.

“I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to make projections, but we have gone from three to 14 workers in the past 12 months and I think we have a very positive future with our little company.”

thechildrensplayground.com