Building on Greatness
Toy Factory Reflects on Its Successful Journey in the Plush World
The average American probably wouldn’t consider there to be many similarities between the world of plush toys and Hollywood, but the folks at Toy Factory would be happy to correct that misinterpretation. After 17 years in the amusement industry, the company has forged relationships with some of the most well-known names in showbiz, as well as some of the biggest names in the amusement industry. These relationships are integral to their business and their customer’s satisfaction, and stem from years of dedication to their product.
From negotiating a deal to carry a new Universal Studios film –– The Secret Life of Pets, which according to company VP Amy Hoffman is promising to be a fan favorite –– to coming up with new ways to market that same studio’s most popular franchise –– Despicable Me! –– a day at the Toy Factory is far from dull.
The company itself was founded in July of 1999, but a lot of the folks who make its gears run smoothly have been in the industry for much longer.
“It all goes back to when most of us were working at Play by Play Toys,” said Toy Factory President Mark Gawlik. He was the president of Play by Play from 1992 to 1999, and helped the company go public and become one of the dominant plush toy suppliers in the amusement market at that time.
“I had a falling out with the then-CEO because I kept seeing squeaky wheels needing attention that weren’t getting any grease. So I left and formed Toy Factory three and a half months later,” Gawlik said. “Over the course of several years, we coalesced the management team that used to be at Play by Play, bringing them over to the new company. Most senior management at Toy Factory has been in place since 2003.”
Once Play by Play shuttered in 2002, Gawlik said a large hole was left in the market for the burgeoning Toy Factory and its competitors to fill.
“We were successful from the start,” he related. “Our approach to the market was to work from the top down. We wanted to go after the largest clients in the industry by providing reliable service and superior product.
“We’ve only kept building from there,” he continued. “Today we have from 500 to 600 accounts nationwide, and have worked with distributors to reach a lot of the smaller, independent operators and FECs as well.”
Today, Toy Factory describes itself as a midway supplier of plush for outdoor and indoor amusement businesses. In 2014, their distribution expanded to the retail market, including grocery chains and more.
The management collectively has over 150 years experience in the industry. Their distribution offices in San Antonio, Texas, and Elysburg, Pa., support customers around this country, as well as licensees in Australia, New Zealand and across Europe. Toy Factory’s China presence is headed by Leo Liu, who oversees a design and QC staff of six, as well as a contract design studio in Nanjing, and does a lot of its manufacturing in that country as well, employing a team of designers, pattern makers, cutters, sewers and prototype designers.
“We do have rigid standards we require the Chinese factories to meet, so we can ensure they meet the social standards that we uphold in our company,” Gawlik said about making sure their business partners provide third-party, independent accreditation of social and environmental standards. “We do it for ourselves, and for our customer’s satisfaction. You don’t want to be the business that’s cutting corners.”
Toy Factory offers a myriad of colorful products, with about 30 percent of sales being original, unlicensed designs and 70 percent licensed from popular names. From perennial classics like Scooby-Doo, Sonic, Pokémon and more, to fresh franchises like the new Trolls movie from DreamWorks Animation releasing later this year, to PowerPuff Girls and Steven Universe from Cartoon Network and Transformers from Hasbro (slated to coincide with 2017’s release of that next movie), Toy Factory has to stay on the cutting edge of pop culture and trends.
“It’s a delicate balance, between license and original. I give a lot of credit to Amy Hoffman who handles the licensing for the company,” Gawlik said. “She’s developed strong relationships with major studios, and she’s always looking for what kind of brands are trending and coming down the pipeline.”
Hoffman, another of the Play by Play veterans, joined the company eight months after it was founded in 1999, and since then, it’s fair to say that’s she’s invested a lot over the years.
“When you’re starting a new company, you learn how to multi-task, so as we grew, we all took on extra roles. We started with only unlicensed items, but over the last 17 years, we’ve significantly grown our license portfolio,” Hoffman said. “We started with just a few licenses, and looking back at the catalog, it’s exciting to see it progress from four or five pages to the 40-something pages of product we now offer.”
Hoffman believes that, in the relatively small industry of licensing, integrity, quality and relationship building matter above all else. She stresses the fact that their performance as a company directly affects the opportunities they have for licensing going forward.
“We never want to underperform on our license programs, and we view our licensors as partners and consider it a privilege and an honor to be awarded a license, not just for a single line of toys but for the long-term benefit of all of us,” Hoffman said.
This means working alongside licensors to develop product far before the public even knows a film or character is coming, ensuring quality throughout the product development process, attending amusement and licensing trade shows to network and, sometimes, even inviting the head honchos of some of Hollywood’s biggest studios to tour the Toy Factory.
“We can’t go in blindly to a new license, so oftentimes we get to view clips and storyboards of new films far before the public does. We have even attended premieres of movie releases in Hollywood,” Hoffman said. “It’s fun and exciting and I truly enjoy the people I work with in the licensing community. We are usually working for 12 to 18 months on a film before it is ever released to the public.”
But in order to attract the big names, and keep their current licensors and customers happy, Toy Factory has to look polished. That’s where Charles Howell comes in, yet another Play by Play vet. Howell is in charge of the company’s art department, which is a very busy place. He built the department from the ground up, and along with two other staffers, provides original designs, photography, website work, advertising, packaging and the overall look of the company’s products.
“Anything that we have to present to a potential licensor –– any new pitch –– comes through us,” Howell said. “It’s exciting to work here! With such a vast stable of licenses, it’s something new every day.”
Howell often works with the customers, too, and will design specialty tags and displays for Toy Factory’s larger clients. The team once even worked on a project for Kylie Kuhns, whose older sister succumbed to a battle with leukemia. They developed a therapy plush frog, named Hopper the Cancer Crusher, with an educational aspect: It could be used as a tool for demonstrating where the IVs would go in to allay the fears of children undergoing chemo. Howell and crew developed the toy based on a drawing of Kuhns herself, and it is now given by to young cancer patients by hospitals all around the country to help better prepare kids and their families for the hardships of cancer treatment.
For Gawlik, Hoffman, Howell and the rest of the Toy Factory team, maintaining the excellence they’ve established over the years is a necessity for continuing in business. Whether they’re inviting execs from Universal Studios to their office and letting them stuff their own toys, pursuing a new customer in this country or abroad or simply coming up with a new way to build a teddy bear, Toy Factory will continue creating the quality they and their customers demand.