Pyroworx: A new fireworks brand
An interview with James Donnelly and a tour of their future storage site.
As an end user of consumer fireworks I have felt somewhat spoiled in recent years by the number of incredible brands on the market. Choice has never been so wide, nor has the quality and innovation been so good. So to hear that another new brand is soon to enter the UK fireworks space is hugely exciting; more so when the sales director is James Donnelly, well known in the trade for his work with Primed, Evolution and Hallmark, three respected UK firework brands.
In this article I am lucky enough to corner James right at the start of this new venture to find out more and ask all those questions enthusiasts like myself need answering. If you’re a retailer you’ll find this a useful insight too.
The new brand is called Pyroworx. And at the time of meeting, James was still finalising their storage, so the location was a fascinating glimpse into a former military site.
Finding suitable storage for a new importation venture is obviously critical in view of the amount of fireworks involved. Herein lies a challenge other importers and retailers will be sympathetic to: finding somewhere to put it all. James has secured a currently disused ex-military facility with enormous potential but also requiring extensive cleaning up which you’ll start to appreciate as my photos unfold.
As meeting places go, it was one of the more interesting I have been to in recent years. A great example of how former MOD assets can be repurposed for commercial use. As we toured the site I asked James first of all about his background in fireworks; where did it all start for him?
“It was the beginning of August in 2014,” James explained, “and it was a sales job that I had applied for, having no previous experience in fireworks. The company was Megablast and I had to think on my feet a bit at the interview as I didn’t know much about the industry. However, sales jobs in general are much the same regardless of the product, if it’s quality gear that you’re selling. The rest as they say is history.”
“I’ve been trying to get out of fireworks ever since,” he added, laughing.
I asked James what he did before this as I am always curious about people’s previous lives before fireworks. “I’ve previously worked in the outdoor industry,” James replied, “the diamond industry and hydroponics. All very different industries.”
I told him that would make a great headline quote for the article (see above). Don’t be alarmed at the rabbit in the photo of James, it’s one of many pieces of graffiti across the site. At times touring the disused bunkers became quite surreal with this artwork all around.
It was at Megablast that James started to find an aptitude for shaping a quality fireworks brand. “There were a number of changes I thought we could make to improve the product,” James said, “and the company owner was receptive to investing in these. This turned into a complete rebrand and Primed Pyrotechnics was born. The new brand was very well received after it came in to the UK in 2016. The improvements focused on the product quality, names and artwork, all of which are important to help retailers sell the fireworks.
“In 2018 I moved to Evolution, another firework brand, though by the end of that year we had become the distributor for Primed in addition to Evolution’s product. At the end of 2019 I parted ways with them and started work at Hallmark. It was in the doldrums a little when I joined and I helped to turn it around.”
That’s quite a CV. Primed, Evolution and Hallmark are all regarded as top quality firework brands.
It’s probably no surprise that James was going to be tempted by an even bigger challenge: being involved with a new brand from its birth. However, at this point I asked James to please take my next question in good spirit: “Are you mad?”
There are a few reasons why starting a new fireworks brand could be seen as difficult. First we have the global shipping crisis with costs sky-high ($35k+ per container compared with less than $10k pre-Covid) and limited shipping capacity. Then there’s the lack of access to China at present to see factories. Then there is, arguably, a saturated market with many established brands already in the UK.
James didn’t flinch at any of these points and was keen to answer them head-on.
“I’ll start with the shipping,” he replied. “It’s true that costs are high and unlikely to fall much over the next few years. But for us, these prices are normal and what we start with, so it’s all factored into our costs and pricing. It’s the same for everyone too, so it’s not a problem specifically for us.
“With regards to limited availability, we’ve been careful from the outset to work with a factory in China that can guarantee delivery well in time for the 2022 season. I’m also in almost daily contact with them to ensure production and shipping is going as planned, which it is. It’s a shame we can’t see them in person but again, this is the current “normal” for all the firework importers.
“Yes, there are many good firework brands in the UK already. But Pyroworx isn’t just another generic brand. I believe we have some high quality new products that offer something original.”
Clearly this is all well thought out and going to plan. I was curious to know what his personal motivations were. “My role is similar to previous ones,” James explained, “but with Pyroworx I am very much at the forefront of a new venture. It’s a chance to spread my wings a bit and help shape a fireworks brand from the start. The company’s financial backers have given me a lot of freedom to use my trade knowledge and expertise to achieve this. Pyroworx products are also pitched as premium, something I am keen to continue working with. I’m looking forward to the challenges ahead too.”
James was kind enough to give me a little background information about setting up the new brand.
“Where do we start?” James said, looking thoughful. “First of all a new brand needs a name. What do we want to portray with that name? Then we have to consider what products we want to stock and who supplies them. Finally we need a place to store them. This all needs to be in place before we sell anything.”
I asked James about his supplier in China. I was expecting a vague response as much of the trade is quite guarded here but he was refreshingly open about it all. “There’s a factory in China whose products I had been looking at for a couple of years,” he said, “importantly they had not, as yet, supplied anyone in the UK. This is important as it gives us a great opportunity to bring in completely fresh products. They have been gracious enough to give us an exclusivity deal for a number of years so we can be sure our product remains unique.”
I was keen to know how confident he was with shipping targets and to expand on his previous comments he said: “Ensuring our new product arrives well in time to ship out to retailers has been at the forefront of our planning. Our contract has financial penalties for the factory in case of delays which will help to keep things on track. We’re on target for stock to arrive by the end of August.”
“It’s not a massive amount for our first year,” he added, “But will be over half a dozen containers initially with a view to increase in the future, dependent on sales.”
This brings me nicely on to storage, as I stepped over the millionth empty spray can. You’ll see from the photos above that this site has some challenges. Not content with just helping a new brand, James is also going to oversee the return to use of an abandoned MOD site.
For obvious reasons I can never disclose locations, other than to say it was somewhere between Aberdeen and Plymouth. Fireworks tradespeople who store in former RAF, MOD or USAF sites will recognise the familiar shape of concrete bunkers topped with earth and with massive blast doors at the front. I’ve been in some that have stored cruise missiles in their former Cold War days; these sites are ideal for storing fireworks.
The problem is a finite number of such sites and many are already up to their permitted limits, making new storage that’s a sensible distance away the proverbial rocking horse poo!
“Currently this is not a site that’s ready to store fireworks,” James said in a hugely understated way, “but there is huge potential. The site is a mothballed military site so all the buildings are already geared up for explosives storage. It’s around 30 acres in total.
“We’re going to start by bringing a few stores into use and securing the site then expand from there.”
I asked him if, given the size, this could be a storage possibility for other companies to share in the future. “It’s possible, though we need to get our own storage up and running first,” he replied, “though the long term plan is to bring the whole site back in to use.”
As we picked our way through the empty spray cans I noticed an unusually large number of decorators’ paint trays and rollers. “The graffiti artists often paint the walls white first,” he explained, “before returning to use spray paint.” As soon as he said this I realised that a lot of the internal store walls – they’d been in all of them – had indeed been prepped for vandalism first! One bunker was knee-deep in empty beer cans. “There’s been a few raves here too by the look of things,” James added, sighing.
I helpfully suggested that he’d need a lot more paint and skips than first thought.
I was curious to know more about the new brand. Getting back to an earlier question about the UK market I asked James to elaborate on Pyroworx’s positioning in a potentially crowded space.
“We are in an industry where you have to innovate or die,” James said with a great degree of passion (and some relief that we’d moved on from the repainting job in store). “You can’t rest on a reputation that was built many years ago. You need to keep bringing in new products.”
This returned us to James’s comments about securing a completely new factory for the UK market. “Whilst we can’t get into China at the moment we’ve done everything we can to ensure the first products are top quality and different to anyone else’s. We’re not interested in using off the shelf products either. Many initial samples have been reworked to the point we had to re-CE them at great expense.”
He explained he’ll be out to China as soon as this is possible: “At the moment there’s no possibility of visiting the factory and China is still having some lockdowns. We looked into getting some factory personnel to the UK for a visit but even that wasn’t viable. So it has been Zoom calls and emails the same as everyone else. Things take longer this way but we’re getting there.”
I asked James if Pyroworx was targeted towards anyone in the trade in particular. “We’ll be looking mostly towards independent retailers who want a new, quality brand,” he replied. “We’ve put a lot of work in to the labelling and artwork so products both look good and have a style theme running through them. Our pricing is competitive with other brands; neither the cheapest nor most expensive and definitely competitive.”
As for his main aims with Pyroworx, James was obviously mindful of the business being at an early stage. “Getting established is my main priority to begin with,” he said. “It’s a very fickle industry, as long as our stock arrives and is well received I’ll consider that a good start.”
I asked him how initial marketing to retailers was going. “I’ve sent out hundreds of brochures and so far the feedback I’ve had has been good,” he replied. “The next stage is getting product videos ready which we are currently finalising with our factory ahead of our official launch.”
A sample page from their new brochure is shown below:
I noticed when browsing their new brochure that a few products were labelled as “Quiet Riot” which I thought was a great name for a low noise range.
“We do have half a dozen products which are specifically low noise,” he explained, before adding with a laugh: “though not silent.” This was a reference to the minority of killjoys trying to tell anyone who will listen that we should be using completely silent fireworks (which don’t exist).
“The modern family might want to celebrate an event with high performance fireworks,” James said, “but might be conscious about the noise levels. Quieter fireworks don’t need to be any less impressive, so we’re trying here to offer great effects but lower sound levels.”
Coming back to product video I asked him if a trade demo night was planned for 2022. “Not as yet,” he replied, “as we just won’t have time this season. With stock arriving in August the plan is to turn this around quickly and have stock on retailers’ shelves in September. Some retailers may then film stock; we might look at a demo night in the future.”
The last few years have been hard on firework importers due to that perfect storm of shipping costs and the post-pandemic hangover. In wrapping up our interview I was curious to know how optimistic – or not – James was about fireworks in general. His response was actually very positive.
“Many retailers have reported bumper seasons in 2021 as consumers bounced back from lockdown,” he explained. “It could be seen as a challenging time to import by some but demand for quality fireworks is back and is very strong. It’s almost as if consumer fireworks is having a resurgence after a few lacklustre years prior to Covid. I’m confident fireworks is a tradition that is here to stay in the UK.”
And when pressed on whether this new venture is stressful on a personal level he grinned. “There’s obviously a lot to do and getting established is a challenge initially as we’re a new brand. But I’ve done it before and know what I am doing; the company has good backing and investment so I’m confident for our future prospects.”
I’d like to say a huge thanks to James for his time and meeting me for this interview. From my point of view as an enthusiast rather than a retailer it has been a great opportunity to grill someone in the trade as they start out with a new venture.
James clearly has a great track record in fireworks and I am sure Pyroworx is in good hands. I look forward to seeing their new product on shelves and hearing the initial thoughts from members of my Forum when they try it out.
If you are a fireworks retailer and want to find out more, here are some contact details: