After just a few short weeks in “retirement” Neil Friedman has returned to the retail side of the desk by being named Toys’R’Us’ US President. This comes just in time for the upcoming TRU IPO (good for him!). Early in his career, Neil spent ten years at Lionel Leisure before moving to the toy manufacturing side with Hasbro, Gerber and finally Fisher Price and Mattel. He also spent an additional short stint at Lionel Leisure in the early nineties.

The toy industry should benefit nicely by having Neil in such a prominent place at Toys’R’Us which has been looking awfully “Targety” lately. It should certainly be helpful that he understands and empathizes with the challenges that manufacturer/importers face. Congratulations to Neil and good luck to the toy industry which hopefully will find it just a little bit easier to do business with TRU.

Mr. Friedman’s alma mater, Mattel, just lost the most recent round in its “total war” with MGA. Most toy industry executives that I have spoken with are absolutely flabbergasted. To hear MGA Chief Executive Isaac Larian crow “After seven years of fighting with Mattel, I’m finally vindicated” reminds me of Ollie North saying “I’ve been completely exonerated. It seems that Mattel and MGA are now tied at one and one with one “do over”. So what happens next? Appeal? Jumpball? Tiebreaker?

From my reading of the case (which is admittedly far from complete) it seems clear that Carter Bryant created the original Bratz drawings on Mattel’s time and dime. It seems equally clear that Mattel turned the concept down internally (oops!). That’s completely understandable. We’re in a fashion business and much of product selection is just guessing at what a very fickle group will decide they must absolutely have usually for a very short period of time.

I, of course, haven’t read Carter Bryant’s Mattel contract but I do know (as does everyone in the toy industry) that these contracts are meant to cover all intellectual property developed day or night or weekend while in a company’s employ. Both Carter Bryant and Isaac Larian must have known that in producing Bratz, they were on a very slippery slope whether there was some loophole in the Bryant/Mattel contract or not. On the other hand, it is also very clear that MGA overwhelmingly built the Bratz franchise through smarts and hard work.

So, what should be done? This isn’t the way “the law” reads or the way contracts were written but it I were King Solomon…First, no damages for anybody. I would guess there was an adequate amount of “stolen trade secrets”, dirty tricks, subterfuge and just plain smarmy behavior by both combatants. The original concept was probably technically owned by Mattel but the business was built by MGA. So Mattel should receive the highest customary inventor’s royalty paid in some sort of split by MGA and Carter Bryant who surely knew he was violating the spirit if not the letter of his contract.

I’m not particularly happy with that opinion. I am decidedly not an MGA fan but in trying to be impartial that’s where I come out. It’s just one man’s opinion admittedly based on a very limited reading of the evidence (mostly newspaper stories). If I had more first-hand access to the evidence, my opinion might be different. So please, there’s no need for huffy phone calls from either the Mattel or the MGA camp. You both need to focus on the next round of your battle (and I’m predicting there will be a next round).

On to more broadly important matters. Last week we learned that US manufacturing output has been rebounding at an incredibly fast rate. During the first quarter it increased at an annual rate of 9.1% compared to an estimated growth rate of about 2% for the US economy as a whole. This is due to a number of factors. In 2010 most large companies postponed purchases in order to hoard cash. Now that the deer in headlights portion of the crisis is over and the recovery has slowly begun, companies are beginning to spend to satisfy pent up demand. Large increases in corporate spending for computer and software upgrades are being seen.

Another reason in commodity inflation as US companies seek to jump on the bandwagon of rising prices and growing sales volume. Food price inflation is boosting spending world-wide on agricultural equipment. Globally rising metal and oil prices have encouraged spending on mines and oil and mineral exploration requiring additional equipment. As freight traffic grows, trucking firms are investing in vehicles with better fuel efficiency.

All of this heavy machinery will require additional people to build it. Additional workers will mean increased spending on consumer products and consumer products firms will need additional employees to fulfill demand. When the manufacturing sector does well the rest of the economy generally follows. The whole shebang is beginning to snowball albeit very slowly. Indeed in March, the unemployment rate edged downward in its fourth consecutive monthly decline. I’ll be leaving tomorrow to attend a Pinnacle Society conference with the other Big Dogs of Recruiting. It will be interesting to hear how employment is fairing in all of their various niches.

There are, of course, a few concerns. One is that the recent earthquake in Japan will lead to shortages of automotive parts, semiconductors and electronic components. That could slow production of some goods but thus far the effect seems to be relatively minor. A bigger worry is a spike in oil prices due to Middle East unrest. Saudi Arabia has enough spare oil capacity to offset almost any Middle East problems short of someone going to war with Iran (which doesn’t seem likely). The biggest danger would be if Saudi Arabia itself sank into crisis. If that happens…well, let’s just hope it doesn’t.

Toyjobs continuing forecast is for increased toy industry hiring of specific and necessary jobs and an increase in sales to toy retailers. Unfortunately, due to China’s slowly strengthening currency, rising labor costs, rising commodity prices and general inflation – we foresee lower margins. Things are so much better than they were a year ago but in 2009 the economy sank so low that it’s still not even close to normal.


All the best,
Tom Keoughan