Despite the economic situation, Turnhout’s world leader in the production of card and board games is investing 80 million euros in additional production capacity. “A box of Monopoly or a deck of cards is pretty recession-proof.”
“See, this is considered the most difficult game in the world by connoisseurs.” Stefaan Merckx, CEO of Cartamundi, shows a pack of Magic: The Gathering cards. For 30 years now, the fantasy trading card game has been immensely popular. “Cartamundi was the only one crazy enough to want to produce this technical feat for the gaming company Hasbro.”
For a long time, the family business Turnhout was mainly known for the production of board games such as Monopoly and Cluedo (see inset), but trading card games and trading cards around various cartoon, movie and manga characters are now the big engine. Especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries – the company generates 300 of the 650 million euros turnover in North America – and Asia, with Japan in the lead, the so-called ‘collectibles’ are extremely popular, which now make up 28 percent of the group’s turnover.
The worldwide success of playing and trading cards such as Magic, Pokémon or Dungeons & Dragons means that Cartamundi is investing heavily in four new factories for the production of such cards.
Today, during the Belgian trade mission to Japan, in the presence of Princess Astrid, Merckx announces that the company is building a third factory near Tokyo, one year after the second opened in the country. The location must be operational by 2026 at the latest and will cost ‘several tens of thousands’. ‘During the past four years, we have grown in Japan from a turnover of 50 to 100 million euros,’ says Merckx. ‘It gives an idea of where things will go in the coming years.’
Over the past four years, we have grown in Japan from a turnover of 50 to 100 million euros. It gives an idea of where things will go in the coming years.
The factory is financed within the joint venture that Cartamundi has with a Japanese entrepreneurial family. It is selling its 50 percent stake to the prominent Japanese entrepreneurial Aso family, whose most famous descendant is the influential liberal politician Taro Aso, who was prime minister of Japan in 2008 and 2009.
In Mexico, Cartamundi has just opened a new factory building. The investment was limited because the site was equipped with existing machinery. In eastern Germany, near Leipzig, the company is also building a new factory in the middle of next year, larger than the one in Japan, an investment of more than 20 million euros.
In its home port of Turnhout, Cartamundi will double its capacity by 2025, an investment of 25 million euros that will create 100 additional jobs. ‘The offices with 50 employees are moving to the center of Turnhout and a production site will replace that building and the car park,’ says Merckx. “We are applying for the permits and changing the production flow in the existing factory. The new factory, which will focus exclusively on trading cards, should be ready by the end of next year.’
Over the past ten years, the Turnhout family business has grown by an average of 10 percent per year through acquisitions and organic growth. Cartamundi made a first quantum leap of 150 million additional revenue by acquiring two factories from Hasbro in 2015. In 2019, a quarter was added through the purchase of United States Playing Cards (USPC), the American publisher of, among other things, the legendary playing card brand Cykel.
For years, Cartamundi has been looking for ways to delve into the digital world. To that end, they created Digital Ventures, today a separate division within the group, which is a cross between an incubator for start-ups and experimental projects and a venture capital fund. The capital round of more than 50 million euros announced last year is almost complete, according to Merckx. ‘A number of large international players from the entertainment industry have applied, and we hope to have the fund in January close.’
In March, Cartamundi Digital Ventures already closed a mega deal with Warner Bros. The American entertainment giant was the first major customer of the Hro (pronounced ‘hero’) platform in May, which is set to become the digital ‘homeport’ for an army of legendary comic and film heroes from the American comics world. A first contract came around Batman, next to Superman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman, the most important figure in the DC Comics catalog, where Warner Bros. have the licenses. “There are about 300 million diehard fans of DC Comics worldwide,” says Merckx.
Inflation has inflated wages to gigantic proportions, not only in Belgium due to automatic wage indexation, but all over the world.
On the so-called ‘fan engagement platform’ Hro, any ticket with a QR code and an NFT version (non-fungible token, a digital object with a proof of ownership) can be exchanged and traded digitally. Since the start in April, it has happened 500,000 times (paid transactions) and 21 million times (exchange transactions). The platform is not reserved for Warner Bros. ‘Final negotiations are currently underway with several other major entertainment companies.’
The investments in factories and the first successes in the digital world do not mean that Cartamundi is doing well. This year, the board game market, which accounts for 30 percent of sales, fell by 15 percent. ‘Stay-in-your-room advice during the corona years has given us golden years in that category,’ says Merckx. ‘This year, people came again in droves, so we saw a shift from large gambling boxes to card games and playing cards, which are easier to take with you on trips. In addition, many of our large customers still had inventories that they have begun to reduce. During the whole of 2022, revenue in that product category fell by 10 percent.’
Creator of global gaming fun
- Cartamundi was founded in 1970 as a joint venture between the Van Genechten cardboard printing company of the de Somer family and the Brepols publishing and printing company of the de Cartier de Marchienne family. Last year, the company was named Family Business of the Year.
- Market leader in the production and marketing of card and board games for the toy giants Hasbro, Disney, Lego and Mattel (Monopoly, Cluedo, Trivial Pursuit, Uno, Risk and Catan) and licensed games for Transformers, My Little Pony, Frozen and Star Wars, among others other things.
- In recent years, the biggest growth has come from own brand playing cards (Bicycle, Copag) for casinos (poker), magicians, the playing card culture of the Anglo-Saxon countries (bridge) and trading and trading cards.
- Expected revenue 2022: 650 million euros (+13%).
- Expected gross operating profit (EBITDA): approx. EUR 81 million
- 3,000 employees.
- 14 factories around the world.
More than half of the expected revenue growth this year (from 575 million to 650 million euros, +13%) comes from passed-on price increases. With this, the company has largely succeeded in protecting its profit margin of 12 to 13 percent against the high raw material and energy prices. “The prices of paper and cardboard have exploded. This is because a lot of energy is required during production. And then there are the increased labor costs. Inflation has inflated wages to gigantic proportions, not only in Belgium due to automatic wage indexation, but all over the world. It is connected to the warehouses of giants such as Walmart and Amazon, which massively drain the labor market’.
Merckx is cautious about what 2023 will bring. “We are in the dark about the effect of inflation and recession on purchasing behavior. In the past, for example during the post-banking crisis recession, games and playing cards have proven to be reasonably recession-proof. Our most expensive game box, for example from Cluedo or Monopoly, costs 20 euros. All our other products are cheaper. But it remains to be seen whether that law also applies in the current economic downturn.’