This is the English translation of an interview which first appeared in a Dutch local referees’ magazine, which explains references to other articles. It is reprinted here with permission.
As recounted in the article about the history of the referee whistle, the first one ever to be used in an official football match, was one made by Joseph Hudson, of the later Acme whistle factory in Birmingham. For decades, the names Hudson and Acme were synonymous with referee whistles. This themed number of our magazine provided an excellent opportunity to conduct an interview with Acme’s current CEO, Simon Topman. I spoke with him at length the day the Olympics started this summer.
Simon, the London Olympics are starting today. Are you excited?
Yes, of course, it’s a once in a lifetime event, having it in your own country. At first, people were not so excited about it, what with the continually rising costs of athlete protection, the threat of terrorists wreaking havoc, the installation of rocket launchers on peoples’ homes… Also, people were afraid it would get too crowded in London. It was hard to get excited about it. But now, as it was drawing closer and with a sporting atmosphere growing, the excitement is growing too.
Do you have any personal involvement in the Olympics?
If you mean I will go and visit them, probably not. But the organising committee asked our firm over a year ago to supply 10 different models of our whistles, to be used in a variety of sports at the Olympics. In total, we supplied 4,000 different whistles to the Olympics. (In the second week of the Olympics, Simon emailed me to say that the organisers ordered a few hundred whistles more, by way of emergency. It will remain a wonder what happened so that they needed more.)
How did you get into this business?
That was 30 years ago. It was at the height of the Thatcher government, when many of our national industries were being closed down or sold off. I was working in the steel industry, which also had, in my opinion, a dubious future. Any moment I was expecting Thatcher to say that it was too expensive to keep it up, so it should be closed down. Eventually, that did happen, but not before I followed in my father’s footsteps and started working as a salesman for Acme. At the time, the founders of the company were dying out. They had been in the business for 4 generations, but there was no one to follow them up. So I bought the shares in 1991, became CEO and have been that ever since.
So, how many whistles to you sell annually?
Over six million, and approximately 2.7 million of them are refereeing whistles. It all started with a policeman’s whistle, as you know. At one point in our history we sold over 300 products! At the moment, we offer about 80 different products, covering bird calls, sound effects, pressure warning signals, musical accessories and an array of metal and polycarbonate sports and safety whistles.
We sell to 119 countries, with sales growing at about 3 to 4 percent a year, even with growing competition from genuine whistle makers such as Fox and cheap imitations from Asia.
Do you still develop new whistles?
Yes, research and development never stops at our plant. We constantly receive requests to make specific models, with the biggest demand coming from birders, for bird calls. And not too long ago, we developed a special safety whistle for use in coal mine tunnels, which took us two (!) years. At enormous cost, incidentally. People have no idea how much it costs to develop a new whistle. It costs about EUR 80,000 in materials and man years plus the research at EUR 20,000, so about EUR 100,000 just to develop a new model. You’d have to sell many to earn that cost back. If we do have the idea that a new model will be profitable, we do also perform trials and field tests. Did you know, by the way, that each and every whistle that we make is tested? In the early days, our founder, Joseph Hudson, did that himself. Now we have a machine to do it for us. The average number of rejects we receive from customers each year is only about six. Of course, we then look into the problem and try to improve our manufacturing process, if necessary.
Your readers may find it interesting to know that our Tornado 2000 pealess whistle was developed with the new Ajax Arena stadium in mind. It was said to be the loudest stadium in the world, so we had to design a model that would be capable of being heard over the din from the terraces and still be easy enough to blow. That, by the way, is the Acme design principle:
- How hard or easy is it to blow? (Blowrate)
- How loud is it? (Blowsound)
- What sound or frequency does it have? (Blowtone)
That’s also a perfectly good way to determine what whistle is best for your particular purpose.
What do you mean?
Well, at Acme we believe that different people perceive the tone of a whistle differently. Younger people, for example, hear higher tones better, but older people have better ears for low tones. In addition, there are cultural differences. In Northern Europe, but also Germany, Holland and the UK, people prefer deeper tones, whilst in Southern Europe and South America, for example, shriller tones are preferred. That reflects in our sales: the Thunderers are more popular in northern countries, while the Tornado models are sold more in warmer countries. We conduct market research to find these things out, to know what makes a good whistle for what purpose. We get a lot of feedback – invited through questionnaires we send out and uninvited. Every opinion is important to us.
But to come back to your question: I believe that you choose your whistle to match the play. Referees also have to “talk” with their whistles, using intonation to make known the intensity of the decision. Accordingly, when you referee a Champions League match, you use a different whistle than when you do the under-14s on a Satuday morning in front of 14 spectators. The best whistle to “talk” with is a pea whistle, which provides the best variation in pitch and tone. Pealess whistles only blast, You really want such a loud, toneless whistle when you are doing junior matches, hurting their ears with each blow? You know, for this special problem we developed the 622 Tornado, because we were asked by people to produce a hard-to-blow, quiet whistle, so as not to hurt the ears of people living near football pitches? I hated designing that whistle, plugging it to dampen the sound. A pea whistle produces a much more agreeable tone, so it’s better suited for those areas.
So why is it that so many referees have changed to the pealess Fox 40?
I don’t know. It’s good for indoor use in noisy, crowded sports, such as basketball. And it works well in full stadiums. But our Tornado 2000 is just as good, and even louder. Perhaps we are not marketing our products aggressively enough.
That may be true. Fox whistles get great visibility in shops. I hardly ever see Acme whistles.
See, so that might be the problem. People buy Fox whistles because no alternative is offered in shops. Yet, referees just starting out would be better off using an Acme, because it “talks” better. That should go to improve their performance.
Let me show you the preliminary results of an inquiry I did amongst our members. It shows that many of those who changed to the Fox 40 did so because of problems with the cork pea getting stuck or because they say they prefer the louder sound of the Fox.
Is that true? Well, you know, over the many, many years I’ve been in this business and over the history of the company at large, peas getting stuck has been a minor issue. It happens that calcium from saliva can build up in the mouthpiece, reducing the flow of air, so that the pea may not roll well. Or fluff from your pocket can get stuck in the air chamber, which may cause it to get stuck. But our cork peas can be guaranteed not to stick.
I know. My father, a former referee, always and only used the Acme Thunderer (which I inherited from him), and never had his pea stuck.
For our peas, we use cork of the highest quality, we do not coat it with any chemical which can cause it to stick and there are no rims or ridges causing the same problem. So my guess would be that those people reporting those issues used inferior copies, which looked like Acme models but were probably from other, less reliable brands. As for the louder sound you mentioned, I said earlier people should choose a whistle that suits their matches. I believe Acme whistles are better for ‘talking’ with the players, but to each their own.
There is no animosity between Acme and Fox?
No, we’re just competitors. We did have a quarrel with them when they wanted to sue us over a patent matter, alleging Acme had violated one of their patents on the design of their whistles. We did not and it all came down to semantics. Fortunately, before things went to court, it was decided it was not worth the trouble and the matter was settled.
Another issue reported by referees is that the lanyard/ring gets rusty with use. Is there any way around that?
Well, Acme provides a brass ring with its whistles, so that cannot rust. The problem is the lanyard, which tend to have cheap metals. We actually sell a plastic lanyard, which should get rid of the problem. You can order them from our website: www.acmewhistles.co.uk.
In fact, if you’re ever in Birmingham, don’t hesitate to come and visit our factory. Tours are available and all money raised goes to charity.
Simon, thank you for your time.