Rise of the mask-ateers

Rise of the mask-ateers

Chris O’Nyan started cutting out celebrities’ photographs and sticking them onto scrap cardboard ‘for a laugh’ 20 years ago. Today, his party trick is a £3m masks business. Steve Dyson reports

Do you remember the scene in ‘I’m Alan Partridge’, Steve Coogan’s TV comedy, when Alan walks into a room which his biggest fan has spookily devoted as a shrine to his hero?

Alan is visibly scared when all he can see are images of his face plastered across all four walls (there are no windows), and he flees in terror when his deranged fan, brilliantly played by actor Ian Sharrock, reveals that he’s also had Alan’s face tattooed onto his chest.

“You’re a mentalist!” cries Alan Partridge as he escapes the obsessed fan’s clutches, before frantically running away across a farmer’s field.

And while there’s no ‘mentalist’ working at Mask-arade Ltd, this scene comes to my mind when I enter their workshop and warehouse premises in Southam, Warwickshire.

Because, when I walk up the stairs, I realise I’m entering a windowless room, and all four walls are filled with nearly 1,000 celebrity faces: from George Michael to George Bush, from Angelina Jolie to Angela Merkel, and from Alan Sugar to Alan Titchmarsh. And yes, I’m pretty sure one spot is taken up by Steve Coogan, aka Alan Partridge.

But as I gather my thoughts, I’m quickly brought back from the mad world of celebrities to the more normal, but funnier, world of Chris O’Nyan, Dean Walton and Ray Duffy, the trio of entrepreneurs behind Mask-arade.

“It all started back in 1992 at my home in Great Barr,” says Chris, aged 53, who back then was a financial advisor. “I was reading the Mail on Sunday when a colour supplement dropped out with a life-size cover picture of actor Peter Bowles [from TV comedy ‘To The Manor Born’] looking up at me. I don’t know why, but it just caught my eye, and I ended up cutting it out and putting eye-holes in with a biro, holding it up to my face. Then I cut up a cereal box, glued the face to that, and attached elastic bands. That was my first mask.

Later, after a couple of beers with a mate, I put this mask on and he thought it was funny and, when he put it on, I couldn’t stop laughing! After that, I just used to cut out faces from magazines, make masks and wear them to parties, where they went down a storm.

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“I did that for 15 years and then, when my first marriage broke up, I was cleared out of everything: house, kids, every possession except the clothes on my back – and a shoebox full of my masks. Anyway, a couple of years later, a friend rang and said: ‘Have you still got those masks? Bring them along to my barbecue.’

“And so I did. There was a new circle of people there who just loved them, and one of the lads said: ‘There’s got to be a business in it!’”

Chris knew Dean from school and watching “the baggies” - West Bromwich Albion - and Dean had met Ray through business, quickly becoming a trio of mates. Chris, a dad of two grown up children from his first marriage who now lives in Sutton Coldfield with second wife Gwyn, adds: “It was in May 2008, and Ray was looking for a business idea. We met up in The Hampstead Pub in Great Barr, and I wore a David Beckham mask. It worked for Ray, and Dean had seen it before at parties, so we put our heads together about starting a business.”

Dean, also aged 53, and a curtain-waller by trade, picks up the story: “We thought this was a good idea that could and should work, so we decided to trial it. Me and Chris are Baggies’ fans, and it was coming up to their last game of the season away at QPR, a match when fans were dressing up as super heroes to pay tribute to our own super hero, Kevin Phillips.

We printed off 350 pictures of Kevin’s face, glued them to cardboard and attached simple elastic bands. Then we went to the match dressed up as ‘Batman and Kevin’, handing out these masks to West Brom fans at £2 a time. We sold them in an hour, the West Brom players all wore one and it was all over the papers.”

Dean, born in Great Barr but now living in Leamington Spa with second wife Ruth, adds: “But importantly, we brought home £600 for what had cost us about £17 to print. We knew this could work, so all three of us put £2,000 in to pay for a website and a bit of advertising, making masks for stag and hen parties.”

Now Ray, aged 43, who lives in Leamington Spa with his wife Vicky, chips in. Ray used to own a jewellery business, was then into electronics sales, brewing and even once worked as a postman, and he was the one initially keen on the business idea. He says: “People were saying to us: ‘I’ve been looking for something like this for ages.’ And it just took off. We started in Chris’ bedroom, then moved to my garage, using a printer in Great Barr and a laser cutter in Sutton Coldfield. At that stage we were making personalised masks to wear at parties – no celebrities at all.”

Before they knew it, the trio found themselves appearing on TV’s Dragons’ Den in 2009, and although they were turned down the resulting publicity brought in even more orders. An important one – brewing before Dragons’ Den but not confirmed until afterwards – was for 6,000 masks from British boxer Ricky Hatton. More celebrities followed, beginning with ever-popular characters like Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean, and David Jason’s Del Boy and Nicholas Lyndhurst’s Rodney Trotter from ‘Only Fools and Horses’. Politicians, royalty, TV and film stars, football players and sports stars later followed.

“Since then the business has gone from strength to strength,” says Dean. “Our personalised masks have become a must-have for any self-respecting stag or hen night, and our masks are sold in over 1,000 fancy dress and party shops across the UK, as well as many leading retailers like Sainsbury, Primark, Next, Toys R Us, River Island and even Harrods.”

Mask-arade’s success is mainly down to the official licences it works hard to obtain: it now owns the rights to around 450 iconic faces and brands such as the characters from Coronation Street, Eastenders, Thunderbirds, Hollywood Legends, the Rolling Stones, and the world’s current best-selling pop band – One Direction, as well as individual faces like Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.

It’s also been assisted by the Royal Family, producing 250,000 Kate and William masks in the build up to the Royal Wedding in 2011, and then 750,000 Diamond Jubilee party masks last year, which became Sainsbury’s best-selling product in its Jubilee range. In 2011, Mask-arade bought its own warehouse, factory and offices in Southam, and in September last year expanded into the building next door to cope with orders.

The BBC’s Dragons’ Den team even featured them again in ‘The One That Got Away’. Dean says: “In Dragons’ Den in 2009 we said we’d achieve a million pound turnover in five years. We were laughed at but achieved this ahead of schedule. Our turnover was £1.2m in 2012-13, will be more than £2m this year, and advance orders for licensed products will ensure we smash the £3m barrier in the next 12 months, with realistic plans for £5m in the years ahead.

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Our long term strategy is to secure more celebrity and character licences, as this removes any competition. We also now promote our new products via social media: we have over 55,000 Facebook followers, offer a Facebook discount and run regular competitions. Twitter has also been a revelation for us; whenever we meet a celebrity we always ‘tweet’ the photograph to them, thank them and ask them to ‘re-tweet’ the photo to their often hundreds of thousands of followers.”

Dean, Chris and Ray – who call themselves “the Three Mask-ateers” – are all passionate about the business, and are quite detailed about its mechanics: of the hundreds of thousands of masks they produce every year, each one is sold for around £1.10 to the trade, and then retails at around £3.50. The company’s profit margin, after tax, is around 40%.

But the trio also insist on having fun, as Dean explains: “As well as creating a successful business, we still see it as our hobby. We involve our staff by taking them to various shows with the objective of meeting the star. We take masks of the celebrity along and make the most of photo opportunities at the end of a performance. We have now met and had photos taken with over 200 famous people. We also send masks to venues and agents to be autographed, and our signed mask collection now totals 2,100 items adorning every wall in our headquarters.”

When negotiating new licenses, Mask-arade always tries to secure ‘worldwide rights’, as it has distributors in seven countries and is “very near” to breaking into the USA, with intensive research and negotiations because of different image rights laws.

North America is “the big goal” for the business in 2014. Yet despite these international plans, Mask-arade’s directors are proud of their home base, with all products manufactured locally in Warwickshire by the company’s 15 permanent staff, with up to another 25 home-workers ‘tagging and bagging’ – which involves fitting the elastic and packing each mask.

Ray adds: “As a country, if everyone made everything in the UK we wouldn’t have got into the dire position we’re in. Sure, we might be able to save a few pence on every mask by outsourcing to China, but we’re all agreed that we want our own economy to benefit from our success.”