Local business hits jackpot in extreme sports toy

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    Second in a series of stories focused on Malibu-based businesses.

    By Suzanne Marcus Fletcher/Special to The Malibu Times

    The halls of Malibu’s JAKKS Pacific, Inc. vibrates with a distinctive vitality, suggesting that if the clusters of toy executives darting off to their next creative challenge can’t keep up with the vision, they may not be up to the job.

    Headquartered in the newly constructed, ber-chic glass building at 22619 Pacific Coast Highway, JAKKS Pacific became one of the nation’s top five toy companies five years after its emergence in 1995, and ranked No. 12 among Fortune Magazine’s 100 fastest growing companies in 2000.

    Though the company has a vast array of product licenses with evergreen brand names such as the much sought after purple dinosaur, Barney, or the “Gooze” line, marketed with the Nickelodeon name featuring glitter, glow-in-the-dark gift sets and pens, JAKKS is perhaps best known for seizing the opportunity in toy culture to become the self-coined “king” of extreme sports.

    With the Road Champs series and a licensing “marriage” with World Wrestling Federation (WWF) Entertainment to design and market action figures and WWF video games-jointly produced, manufactured and distributed through THQ, Inc.-JAKKS Pacific is poised to take advantage of the larger-than-life sports figures that increasingly hold children’s attention captive.

    Stephen Berman, president and chief operating officer, who peppers his conversation with phrases like “staying power” and “entrepreneurial spirit,” co-founded JAKKS Pacific with respected toy veteran and best friend, Jack Friedman, the company’s chairman and chief executive officer.

    “From inception, our whole focus was to build evergreen brands, being focused on singles and doubles in the business, and not looking for the home run,” said Berman, of the company’s success. “Some companies don’t understand the toy business and the seasonality of it. They are always looking for the big winners. A good example [of an evergreen brand] would be Mattel’s Barbie. You have to refresh it and keep it alive, but it is here to stay.

    “Road Champs was our second acquisition in 1997,” said Berman. “It had been around for 27 years. They were the leaders in die-cast vehicles, but the owner was tired and didn’t want to put more capital into the company. Road Champs is [now] to this company what Hot Wheels or Matchbox is to Mattel.”

    Having started two companies previously, Berman, who hails from Malibu, said he and Friedman wanted to cultivate a familiar, close-knit atmosphere with JAKKS.

    “We enjoy the toy business, marketing of brands and building something up,” explained Berman. “[We] wanted to focus on a company where we would have offices in Malibu, and do it the way we like. When we started, we wanted to bring someone close to us to be the CFO, someone who I have known since I was 6, who was previously at Warner Bros. and previously at Disney. It’s a family-oriented, corporate atmosphere.”

    With JAKKS’ significant hand in designing, creating and marketing its products, Gina Lannen, vice president of product development, talks about producing action figures and play-sets for the WWF line. The figures and sets are derived from “WWF Smackdown!,” a weekly variety/comedy show on the UPN network, featuring WWF superstars in a kind of testosterone-fueled melodrama, replete with showdowns, brawls and attitude.

    “Kids like heroes. We stick with the champions and the bad guys,” said Lannen. “All the creative concepts start with us-WWF has [numerous] licenses and we do everything from action figures to play-sets and microphones.

    “What’s great about the show is it’s really a soap opera-it’s been so successful because they have touted all of this as entertainment-none of it is real.”

    According to Lannen, women relish the WWF’s Raw-Zone and Smackdown! shows equal to that of men, and, “by accident,” Lannen’s five-person design team is entirely driven by women.

    “Two of us are mothers,” said Lannen. “We all watch the shows and have brainstorming sessions in the middle of the week to discuss what happened. We take a look at what we feel is exciting, what makes the fans go wild-and they write us letters.”

    On the motion-picture front and crediting their proven track record and positive working relationship with Warner Brothers, JAKKS Pacific won a competitive license for the Harry Potter “Screaming Diary” line and other activity products inspired by the books.

    “We believe Harry Potter is going to be a lovely license, but we don’t ever forecast our focus on believing it’s going to be this grand-slam internally,” said Lannen. “It may turn out to be. If something turns out to be a homerun, we’ll chase it, but we will never bet on a home run. The Harry Potter property is very focused and true to the content of the book. It’s going to be a long-term property.”

    According to several of JAKKS employees, the company works like “one large team” encouraging product ideas and participation from each person, irrespective of title.

    Said Jack McGrath, senior vice president of operations who manages everything from new business acquisitions to shipping, “There are a lot of young people here. Stephen is young, and the growth curve is exciting. The decisions are quick and there is always this buzz in being here.”

    As to realization of any of his toy concepts, McGrath said, “Sometimes I get lucky and they use one of my ideas. Whatever you want to do, you pretty much get the rope to do it here and you’re kind of given the next level.”

    Commenting on what may be a personal philosophy, Berman said: “People are very fortunate to have life-a roof over your head, and food. Those are great fortunes and you should be pretty optimistic. When someone comes in, whether it’s an assistant position or an executive position, they should have the same type of [positive] personality and character or demeanor. They have to have the same hunger within their field. It’s within someone’s character-you can be entrepreneurial in your personal life, or in business. You have to have the staying power to make it happen.”