An Interview With ... Mike Brooks of Ainsty Casting Company
Since taking over Special Vehicle Force in 1998 Mike Brooks has made Ainsty Casting Company (or 'Ainsty' as it is now known) a well respected and admired player in the market, add to this his many years experience as an SF/Fantasy gamer and he becomes an obvious choice for this series.
Rag: When did your interest in wargaming first begin?
Mike: I suppose it would be when Donald Featherstone started to introduce rules. Prior to that I had played with toy soldiers since my pre-teen days back in the 1950's. I think the availability of Airfix Romans and Britons were also a wargaming starting point in the mid-60's from then you could build armies quite cheaply. I bought my first white metal figures - Minifigs Seven Years War around 1970. I have gone back to the SYW in three different scales and two different theatres. I think we have a lovely three-part hobby, with the reading and research, followed by painting figures and then finally gaming with them.
Rag: Taking over SVF was a big step, was running a wargames related business always a dream of yours?
Mike: No, but I now wish that it had been! In 1996, I became a government surplus wargamer, taking early retirement from the Civil Service. The then York-based company Village Green came on the market soon after. We could not agree a price and it was sold elsewhere, but I then knew what my ambition was. SVF was the third wargames company we considered and it was the first of which I had been a customer so I was familiar with a part of the product range and when SVF ceased trading I felt it important to keep those products on the market. Three years later, most have either been dropped or remodelled!
Rag: You've added items from other companies i.e. Denizen, Excalibur and more recently Reaper to Ainsty's line, is the aim to make Ainsty into a 'one stop' wargames company rather than a specialist model producer?
Mike: I want Ainsty to be a specialist model maker who can offer white metal figures which complement our ranges. We do not really make any significant profit on buying in figures and apart from Denizen, we have probably lost money on the various deals. Having said that I look at the new Mark Copplestone figures and am tempted to take the plunge yet again! These fit in so well with a large part of our current range and two of the 2001 new ranges.
Rag: You also produce a lot resin items for other companies, is this something you would like to do more of in the future?
Mike: No, I look at a tray of contract casting valued at say 15 and know that I can get 50 plus value of Ainsty products from the same volume of resin. Our production capacity is continually under pressure and reducing contract involvement does seem to offer one way of increasing Ainsty volumes to deal with the demand.
Rag: Out of your product range, do you have a favourite model?
Mike: That would have to be either the Stone Circle Set or the Small Boat, both from our Fantasy Ligne range. Nice easy models to cast and both strong sellers two years after introduction. The work that went into the master for the boat is unbelievable and yet it is a nice simple model with wide appeal.
Rag: And a least favourite?
Mike: I think I have just about withdrawn all the models, which for one reason or another would qualify for that!
Rag: Do you have any new projects in the pipeline that you can tell us about?
Mike: When we took over SVF, their catalogue needed a lot of remedial work. I have about six different model makers producing and we still have a couple of year's worth of output from our original list. In addition, new ideas happen all the time. Tirewall came out of my search to find a futuristic alternative to sandbags as a cheap and cheerful defensive system. We saw a farmer using old tractor tyres to weigh down the covers on his stored crops and Tirewall was born. I am looking for a major new release in the late summer, provisionally at the Claymore Show in Edinburgh, but for the moment we will keep that one under wraps!
Rag: Since taking over the company most of the new items have been building/scenery based rather than actual vehicles, is this a definite move on your part?
Mike: We have had a new range of vehicles planned for a couple of years now and that release will include significant remodelling of the existing SVF vehicles. (These have currently been withdrawn from our catalogue). There are at least four other UK based companies producing very good resin vehicles so the gamer still has a good choice, and when we do return with vehicles, they will complement an accessory range also.
Rag: Your Dungeon, Yakkum Mine, Sewers of Aldwark and Tech Tunnel ranges are of course equally useful to both Role-players and Wargamers, is this crossover important to you, is this something you deliberately set out to achieve?
Mike: I actually wanted a sewer system for my role-playing and the mine came more or less in tandem with it. It is good sound business to produce generic products, fantasy or science fiction with an appeal to the historical gamer. The sewer features in more historical games - Stalingrad etc - than in role-playing and is one of our three leading sellers.
Rag: A while ago you said that you would be reducing the number of shows that you would be attending during the year to concentrate on other medium. Has this happened and has it been a success?
Mike: Over the past six months the Internet has proved to be a phenomenal success. For 2001, we have dropped six shows, those which were either least profitable or those where the reward did not justify the effort. Through 2000, I tended not to deal with mail order customers in the week before a show, building up stocks for the big day. I felt that this was not really good business, neglecting a definite customer for a potential one. Having said that it is important for us to keep in touch with the 'grass roots' of the hobby. There are a couple of shows, like COGS at Chesterfield, which are not particularly profitable, however they have a good atmosphere, try to encourage younger wargamers, use informative re-enactors and are well worthy of support.
Rag: What do you think of the current state of the hobby?
Mike: I see a serious danger of things becoming stale. We feel obliged to try and launch a new product at each show we attend - we attended 22 in 2000! A lot of traders seem to lack innovation and seem to be waiting for the next idea from somebody else who takes the risks. Remember the Pirates boom of a couple of years ago, someone took the plunge, a couple of good games appeared at shows and then within weeks every trader, including us, had a Pirates range. If the traders, with their livelihoods at stake, do not keep the hobby interesting, then inevitably customers will go elsewhere. My other concern is that the days of the 'big battalions' seems to have gone. Skirmish gaming, small-scale action etc seem to be the order of the day (in 25mm scale at least) and really, are we back to playing with toy soldiers?
Rag: Where do you see Ainsty in five or more year's time?
Mike: If I were a younger man I would have to say the potential for Ainsty frightens me - the galaxy is almost the limit (We are an SF company!). Realistically, we have set ceilings beyond which we will not go. I suppose I went into Ainsty as a moneymaking hobby. We are now a serious small business with tremendous potential. In two to three years I think we will have taken Ainsty as far as we want to go and then the choices are to sell and let someone else take it further or work to our ceilings.
Rag: Do you have any interest in periods outside of SF/Fantasy? Do you plan to move into these markets at all?
Mike: My personal interests are the Seven Years War and the American Civil War. We have no plans to 'go historical'. The historical gamer is well catered for by a number of UK resin companies. I would like to add an American West surface level complex to our Mine system, and of course that will be generic and very suitable for ACW gamers.
Rag: What was the last game you played? Did you win?
Mike: We are play-testing a set of SF quick-play rules, which we hope to have in print this year. The game mechanics still need some refining, but they are proving to be fun. And no, I lost!
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