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Price war looms over Jaques Eclipse clones
by Bob Alman
posted April 9, 2001

Related Links
"Cloning the Eclipse", Online Forum, Croquet World Online
Death of the Eclipse, Croquet World Online, September, 1997


Keep your eye on the ball at the center of the sport: First, it was Jaques of London, then Barlow from South Africa, and now it’s Sunshiny, manufactured on the island of Taiwan. The questions raised by this developing story will not be answered simply, now or next week. The big question is: Will the croquet world - its clubs, its national associations, and its distributors and retailers - embrace or reject a superior ball with a questionable lineage? The most respected name in croquet - Jaques of London - has ended its relationship with the Taiwan agent who has long produced Jaques balls of various grades and most recently has manufactured the plastic "New Eclipse" through various stages of improvements in response to official testing. The Taiwan agent intends to continue the development of the ball and will sell it to distributors throughout the world. And thereby hangs a still unfolding tale of international intrigue that may eventually affect every croquet player in the world.

Is this a pirated ball? Should you care?
Alan Pidcock oversees the testing of croquet balls for the English Croquet Association and for the World Croquet Federation - and therefore for just about everyone. Every manufacturer with a ball which aspires to Championship level must send it to Pidcock, who subjects it to a battery of tests for bounce, dimensions, roundness, milling, and the like.

Pidcock was not especially surprised to receive in February a new set of balls from Jaques for informal testing, as the venerable company was continuing development of their already approved New Eclipse. Three of the balls seemed fine, but there was too much bounce in the blue one. It seemed to Pidcock that the new balls were on track and that approval would follow some tightening up of the manufacturing procedures.

Shortly thereafter, Manor House Croquet - the name of Pidcock’s company - received suspiciously familiar balls from "Sunshiny" in Taiwan. They looked good. Pidcock was puzzled. Taiwan is hardly the center of the croquet-playing universe.

When Pidcock received yet another impressive set of balls - this time from Don Oakley of Oakley Woods in Canada - he noted that a GREEN ball had been substituted for the blue. Wheels commenced to turn, light bulbs flashed, and the strange truth revealed itself to Pidcock’s mind: Somebody is bootlegging Jaques balls!

But the truth was not nearly that simple. Not to Richard Wu, of the Sunshiny Enterprise Co., Ltd., of Taiwan. Not even to Don Oakley, the well respected entrepreneur of Oakley Woods, one of the major suppliers of croquet equipment in America. As Oakley described it to me, there was never any exclusivity agreement between Jaques and the Taiwan agent and the manufacturer. Jaques did make a commitment for "a large order". That substantial order could presumably finance the changes in the manufacturing process needed in order to produce a ball that would test even better than in the previous manufacturing runs. But no documentary evidence of an exclusivity agreement has yet been brought to light.

The strange truth revealed itself: Somebody is bootlegging Jaques balls!

But in the absence of a legally binding agreement, the manufacturer - who had the moulds, the dies, and the total process under his control in Taiwan - could manufacture as much of the product as he desired, and could sell them anywhere, at any price.

Nevertheless, the U.S. agents for Jaques have threatened to seek an injunction to stop the sale of any unauthorized Jaques clone in the United States. [Randall Agaard of the Kensington Trading Company outlines his position in the letter below.]

The Taiwan agent explained to me in an email message (quoted in its entirety at the end of this article) that he has always respected the territorial boundaries of his customers and has not attempted to sell any balls of his manufacture supplied to Jaques to other dealers in England or - until recently - in the whole of Europe. He has regarded Europe as Jaques "territory" - but Jaques sees itself as an international company with a worldwide market.

As Christopher Jaques explained in a letter to the English Croquet Council (also reproduced below), "We are now in a situation where our ball is being offered to a number of parties throughout the world" It is quite apparent that all that would happen were we to [continued selling it] would be involvement in a price war with other people running our ball which I am sure you will agree is quite unsatisfactory. Ethically also, we are not prepared to continue dealing with [the Far East agent] and regret therefore, that we are not in a position to submit any further samples to Alan Pidcock for testing and approval."

The English Croquet Association isn’t saying much

The English Croquet Association boiled all this down to perhaps the most understated "news" story in the history of the medium when it put the following item in the News section of its website on March 26, 2001:

"The CA has received the following information from Jaques regarding the Jaques ‘New Eclipse’ which was previously announced as approved to 11th October 2002. Development and supply of an Approved version of this ball has been suspended indefinitely."

The newly aborted Eclipse is about to be resurrected under other names by entrepreneurs the world over cutting deals with the former Jaques agent in Taiwan.

This means that Jaques - the world’s leading supplier of croquet equipment, already without a Championship ball for several years following the death of the old Eclipse composition ball - will once again have no approved competition ball for sale, once limited supplies are exhausted. They have no new ball under development, having ended their relationship with their Far East agent. This leaves the field wide open, once more, for the South African produced Barlow ball, which quickly gained dominance all over the world after Jaques stopped making the old Eclipse.

Most tournaments are now played with non-approved balls

At this time - April of 2001 - only two balls are officially approved, and they are made by Dawson of Australia, the only country where they are widely used. The official approval period lasts only three years, and Barlow’s last approval ran out in October 2000. Oddly, the majority of tournaments run by the major associations since last October have been played with non-approved balls!

Only Barlow could explain why their recent quality has slipped, but the decline is obvious. This writer has recently witnessed some of the problems in new Barlows at PGA National in Palm Beach - chipping and peeling around the joints, bumps on the top, where the logo is stamped, and what appear to be blisters on some of the other surfaces. But Pidcock predicts these flaws are being corrected: "They appear to be tackling the problem with considerable resolve, and I would be surprised if the next [test] set was not of excellent quality."

From all reports, the newest edition of the Taiwanese-made Eclipse corrects some manufacturing flaws noted in past official testing. Pidcock declines to speculate on how close Jaques actually came to producing a superior ball through its Far East contacts.

Pidcock confirms that the "Sunshiny" ball submitted to him directly by Richard Wu "has not yet reached the required standard in all respects". But presumably it is very close. When the ball achieves official approval it will find a market. If players give it good marks, it will find a substantial market. It will most probably be sold under numerous logos of individual distributors, as Wu informs potential buyers that he would be glad to imprint the balls with the logo of their choice.

What will be the position of the English Croquet Association on the use of balls in CA events which have been approved on the basis of their tested characteristics but which they may consider to be "pirated" at the expense of Jaques? I have not found anyone, so far, who will answer for the record this most interesting question. [Informed British readers are invited to comment on our online Forum.]

Sunshiny has manufactured and sold balls for many years

Sunshiny has a long record of producing balls for many distributors, branded under numerous logos throughout the world. Sunshiny has supplied balls to Jaques for its garden sets. When Sunshiny offered a championship level ball to him, Oakley didn’t think twice about getting them tested. As for giving Sunshiny a substantial order, he told me he is keeping his options open for the present, until the whole picture emerges.

Wu is an industrious pitchman for his products. He is turning up everywhere. I asked George Wood, a well-known manufacturer from New Zealand, what he knew of Mr. Wu and Sunshiny. He responded, "I was approached back in November and have corresponded with him on and off since. He certainly seems to be a slippery character. The original quote for balls has more than doubled, however the samples he sent do appear to be superb balls. It wasn’t until I received the samples that I realized whose balls they were. I have no doubt that Jaques will have very good reason to be furious, but I guess that’s what happens when you subcontract to countries like Taiwan."

Will Wood order balls from Sunshiny? "At this stage, we are taking a wait and see approach. I gather that to reduce costs, it is necessary to order well over 1000 balls at a time."

Wu sent an email inquiry to the United States Croquet Association via its website about the cost and procedure for getting championship balls approved by the United States Croquet Association. The USCA responded by saying that they would have the balls tested by Alan Pidcock, who also does testing for the WCF and the English Croquet Association. Mr. Wu did not pursue the issue of testing with the USCA. He later commented, "My customers prefer to get the testing done themselves."

We are quite in position to supply you the most competitive price and quality.

I received a postal mailing from Sunshiny which clearly was generated from the official USCA Website Directory of Manufacturers, Distributors, and Service Providers, as it came including the index heading, "Bob Alman - Events & Development". The mailing was crudely written and produced, but quite explicit about what was being offered. It said, in part:

"As a major direct supplier & exporter, we got hi-tech, molds, materials, know-how, experience, injection ourselves, we are quite in position to supply you the most competitive price & quality as follow; NEW HEAVY CROQUET BALLS, ref. CQ-16A. Weight, size, rebound all in Association’s specification, Lovely checkered (double-milled) balls, esp. no spheric joint, Long lasting, one for years of quality players, really a perfect ball! Great for tournament or Championship level."

The mailing exhorts, "Kindly have a look at our website http://home.kimo.com.tw/sunshinyco. Then you’ll see we are also one well-established firm specializing in the same or similar items too."

The Sunshiny company also makes gateballs and boasts of advanced technology that might have special application in the American market for striping balls effectively. Mr. Wu wrote in an email to me, in response to my question about the special requirements of American croquet which make second colors impractical and virtually compel the adoption of striped balls for doubled-banked play, "A solid double-colors ball, not painted on, such as black with white stripe ball could be made possibly if quantity is okay and if mould ready in future. Kindly have a look at our gateball, then you may think it could be done!"

Whether the newest generation of Jaques’ New Eclipse ball has been pirated by the Far East agent or simply and legally "distributed" to other wholesale and retail buyers remains to be determined by the values of the individual observer of this bizarre and multi-faceted story. Jaques is not happy to see the ball they consider their exclusive property peddled aggressively throughout the world under numerous logos. It’s easy to envision the international price war Christopher Jaques predicts in his letter to the English Croquet Association, should an approved Jaques clone be made available to distributors throughout the world.

The new version of the Eclipse marketing by Sunshiny - at least partially financed by Jaques - could capture a huge share of the world market if Wu continues to invest in its development, as he clearly intends to do. Conceivably, the WCF and the major associations could close ranks and proscribe use of the ball in events sanctioned by their organizations. A ball has never failed to be sanctionable for any reason except its quality standard as officially tested - but such a thing is possible.

Barring such action, the "pirated" ball under various aliases will soon find its way onto croquet lawns all over the world, and into major sanctioned national and international events.

In conflict: the laws of business and the traditions of gentlemen

This is an unprecedented situation in the small sport of croquet, which even in the commercial hurly-burly of the modern world is still governed to a large extent by the standards of "gentlemen."

Jaques essentially created the sport of croquet as a popular sports phenomenon 150 years ago. Although the company certainly "dropped the ball" in recent years with the death of the old Eclipse composition ball and their failure to develop a plastic ball that could take its place in the world market, this British company is the most respected manufacturing name in the sport. Few would dispute the observation that at Jaques, high standards of manufacture and integrity of business practices go hand in hand.

On the other hand, Mr. Wu of Taiwan makes a strong case for the market forces that have impelled him to look for broader outlets for a product into which he says he has poured considerable development capital. And with such a narrow selection of approvable balls available to small-scale croquet distributors throughout the world, they can, perhaps, be forgiven for declining to engage in some kind of boycott of the Sunshiny product; they know that the market will find others who will buy a superior product at a good price, even if they decline.

Both Jaques and Barlow can take comfort in the knowledge that there is no way that a Jaques clone can quickly supplant Barlow as the worldwide ball of choice - assuming Barlow gets its manufacturing house in order. Balls are a major expenditure for croquet clubs everywhere, and local clubs are not interested in changing their ball stocks without a very good justification. A good-sized club open or invitational in America must have at least 12 sets for a five-lawn tournament (with one set of solid and striped balls to spare). At a bargain price of $200/set, that’s a $2,000 investment - big money for a local croquet club.

A price war could result in a manufacturing monopoly

At the same time, there’s no way a Sunshiny ball with Approved quality at the right price can be suppressed - except by the concerted action of the World Croquet Federation and the major national associations, who could elect not to sanction any event made with a "pirated" product. This seems an unlikely eventuality, so long as the two sides of the story presented here seem so equally balanced and reasonable.

Add to the market equation the possibility that an approved Taiwan-produced Championship ball can be profitably sold (in quantity) to distributors for as little as US $11.00 each, and the consequences of an international price war over the Eclipse clone become dire, indeed. Could Barlow - or even Dawson - survive in a world where cash-poor croquet clubs are able to buy a complete set of good, durable balls for less than US $100? Not likely. The Eclipse clone manufactured exclusively by Sunshiny of Taiwan could achieve a worldwide monopoly more absolute than any Jaques or Barlow ever imagined. All the manufacturing and sales would emanate from one source in Taiwan.

The further unfolding of this story will be driven not only by conventional market forces - price, quality, supply and demand - but also by the international debate. You are invited to make your own contribution to the story and the debate by posting your comments directly online in our Bulletin Board FORUM on "Cloning the Eclipse."

Letter from Kensington Trading Company To the editor of Croquet World Online Magazine

Dear Bob,

I wish to address the issue concerning the "Eclipse" ball problem. Upon reading [the letter of Chris Jaques sent to Mr. Barrett] I think you can see that Jaques has been very much mistreated. In our dealings with both Chris and John Jaques we have found them to be men of high integrity and very trustworthy. Because they are so honest, they find it hard not to trust others and consequently have been taken advantage of. They have treated us with a great deal of loyalty and total honesty.

We think it is important to remember that John Jaques Co. are the ones who introduced the game of Croquet to the world and have been historically the chief supporter of this game. Of course, we are biased, but nevertheless, we would think the croquet world would want to be supportive of Jaques in this situation.

It appears that this Taiwanese company has taken the trade secrets and research that Jaques has done and paid for and is now [claiming rights to] these balls.

We have already talked to our attorney and are considering filing for an injunction to prevent any of these balls from being sold in the United States.

As of now, we still have a small inventory of the "Eclipse Premium Balls" and will continue to supply as long as we can.

Best Regards,
Randal K. Aagaard,
Kensington Trading Company,
[official U.S. agents for John Jaques & Son Limited],

Letter of Christopher Jaques to the Chairman of the English Croquet Association’s Management Committee

23 March 2001

Dear Mr. Barrett,

Your name has been given to me by Alan Pidcock with whom we have been in lengthy discussion recently regarding the new Eclipse croquet ball, as we felt it would be sensible to put down on paper, to be read out if possible at your forthcoming management committee meeting, the background to John Jaques involvement with best quality croquet balls since we introduced the game in the last century. This will give members a much broader insight into the background of the Eclipse ball and the current position in which we now find ourselves.

In the early days following our introduction of the game to the UK in the mid-19th century the croquet balls were manufactured from San Domingo boxwood which had a natural weight of 16 ounces if produced to a size of 3 5/8". From these original boxwood balls the size, weight and rebound factors currently being used were basically derived.

Things continued very satisfactorily using this material for the next 60 to 70 years until in the early part of the 20th century supplies of this very high quality San Domingo boxwood were beginning to run out and the need came for a composition croquet ball to be produced which would bear the characteristics of the earlier boxwood balls.

At this time 3 companies were involved in the development of a plastic covered ball namely, F.H. Ayers, Slazenger and the British Composition Company. These 3 companies all succeeded in producing balls made with a compressed cork and rubber core and fitted with a cover of approximately 1/8th thickness made from the hardest known plastic at the time which was celluloid.

This company did not actually produce our own ball at this time but balls were made for us by the British Composition Company of Brentford and right up until just after the war this continued quite satisfactorily. By this time F.H. Ayres had gone out of business and Slazenger were no longer producing their ball and therefore the British Composition ball was the only one available.

In the mid-60's we were approached by the British Composition Company to enquire whether we would be interested in taking over their business as the directors were retiring and no-one would therefore be continuing to produce competition croquet balls. We decided at that time that we could not allow this to happen and bought out the British Composition Company and continued to produce the Eclipse ball in their Brentford works.

Within 3 to 4 years it became apparent that it was not economic to do this and therefore moved the plant to our Thornton Heath premises in an effort to keep costs down and a careful eye on quality. At the same time we invested in new mixing equipment to speed up the operation as the ball was proving very expensive to produce in view of its high labour content.

We were, however, still continuing with the original moulds, both cover and core, which of course, by this time were getting quite worn and the thickness of the cover was being reduced quite considerably. The overall diameter of the finished ball was also getting close to the minimum size and eventually in the early 90's we invested heavily in 2 sets of new moulds (40 of each) in order that we could produce the rubber cork core to the exact dimension and weight and the finished ball likewise leaving a 1/8"thick cover of celluloid to give lasting reliability. By 1995 we had finally perfected this new ball and were beginning to produce it in good quantities to a high standard. However, in May 1997 we experienced an extensive fire in the croquet ball manufacturing plant in Thornton Heath caused through an employee’s carelessness with the highly volatile celluloid material and this resulted in the entire croquet manufacturing shop being destroyed including all the moulds, mixing machines and presses.

Unfortunately, in addition to this set-back, in the mid-90's the [British] Croquet Association had decided without any reference to us to change the specification of the Championship ball to include balls being manufactured by various other people throughout the world. Naturally, we were most unhappy that this had been done particularly bearing in mind the heavy expenditures that we had been involved in and also bearing in mind that the overall market for Competition croquet balls is relatively only very small and if balls of varying specifications were to be allowed for championship play, the situation might arise whereby the volume of balls sold would not warrant any one manufacturer continuing to produce.

In view of this fact and also the heavy expenditure involved were we to re-introduce production in our own factory, we decided to approach our Far Eastern agent with a view to having a one-piece ball produced in the Far East. At the same time we commissioned a company specializing in plastics to analyze the Barlow ball so that information from their investigations could assist the Far Eastern manufacturer in producing a ball more faithfully replicating the performance of the 2-piece Eclipse ball of the past.

Things progressed slowly and we were again involved in paying for new manufacturing moulds to be used over there and gradually, in liaison with and through the assistance of Alan Pidcock, we worked towards perfecting the ball. By this year we had finally received samples which seemed to meet every criteria required for competition use. Incidentally, in the meantime we had received 4 or 5 shipments of balls which were supposed to be correct (totaling about 5,000 in all) but which we were unable to use as their quality did not meet the standards required for competition use. Fortunately, however, were able to use them up in our Garden sets which did not require the same high standard.

I am sure you will appreciate that when purchasing items from the Far East quality is the main problem and very often this type of thing happens and goods are received which are not as ordered!

By this time, of course, we had imparted all the information regarding the manufacture of the ball to the supplier in the Far East and recently, unbeknown to us this manufacturer has been approaching various people and companies involved in croquet throughout the world and offering our ball to them. Unfortunately, when dealing with the Far East one has to rely on trust as it is virtually impossible to enforce legal agreements with these companies on the other side of the world.

We are now, therefore, in the situation where our ball is being offered to a number of parties throughout the world and we therefore, are not able to continue running it.

It is quite apparent that all that would happen were we to do so would be involvement in a price war with other people running our ball which I am sure you will agree is quite unsatisfactory. Ethically also, we are not prepared to continue dealing with him and regret therefore, that we are not in a position to submit any further samples to Alan Pidcock for testing and approval.

Alan has been most supportive towards our problem and will no doubt report to you himself regarding developments in due course but I thought it sensible and informative to set out the full history of the development and our involvement with the competition ball so that your committee is fully aware of the background to the current situation

We are in the process of trying to source a competition ball elsewhere, but this will not be a speedy process and regrettably therefore, it will be some considerable time before the replacement Eclipse ball becomes available again.

Thank you for your patience and we will continue to endeavor to support the Association wherever possible and are sorry that we have had to come to this unfortunate decision through no fault of our own.

Yours sincerely,

C.T.C. Jaques
Managing Director
John Jaques & Son, Ltd.

Email from Richard Wu, Sunshiny Enterprise Co., Ltd.
to Bob Alman, editor of Croquet World Online

Dear Mr. Alman,

Many thanks for your mail, and in reply I would like to inform you frankly as follows:

1. I have been dealing with John Jaques for many years. There was a nice relationship between us, even until now especially for me.

2. We have supplied balls, parts or some other items for years; mainly for Jaques, but there was not an agreement, nor any exclusive arrangement between our two firms. Just like us, we never ask buyers to purchase goods fully thru us only.

3. Currently it cost us a fortune, and much attention has been made, even suffer from heavy losses in testings, again and again, to develop a new Croquet ball as mentioned according to the Tournament specification we got from the web. Generally speaking, it's a successful one, and we are nearly get there.

4. I have John Jaques interests in mind always, so no offers have been made to other customers in UK, Scotland and Ireland, even no price was quoted to other big Countries too for a long time, before.

5. It's our policy to protect nice customers on Country even big areas, besides we try to protect them by Country, quantity, even in price… but not on the all worldwide basis as usually few Orders, 1 or 2 or quantity doesn't enough for factory to maintain the minimum running cost even for a single injection machine and wondering how long will it take to cover mould cost too.

6. In view of above and I thought some offers; not to UK, not to Europe even .., to other far-away, tens of thousand miles away, of the world should not effect Jaques much and we do need to survive too! Besides we don't know who is their customers either and even I know, I didn't touch them at all.

7. Jaques seems to be upset about this matter & I have sent some mails, even today, to explain should they think for us a little bit or even in our position and their kind understanding and considerations if any, will be highly expected as I don't want a long nice trustable relationship to be hurt like this, and I am looking forward to their reply too. It reminds us too, buyers may have some other choices/options and a sudden discontinuation may hurt a Company much.

8. I do think I do have considered the ethical position with regards to Jaques & other customers, and a trustable, reliable one too.

Anyway, I don't intend to hurt Jaques in any way, and your kind understanding to this matter will be appreciated. Also do thank you very much for kindly letting us have a chance to speak and to clarify this matter truly.

Very Sincerely Yours,

Richard [Wu, Sunshiny Enterprise Co., Ltd., Taiwan]
April 07, 2001


Make your own contribution to the story and the debate by posting your comments directly online in the Bulletin Board FORUM on "Cloning the Eclipse."


 
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