A Real Toy Story

The Early Days

Above all else, Berrie seems to love the entrepreneurial game. His career began at age 10. A middle-class kid from the Bronx, Berrie loved baseball--and found a way to profit from it. "I'd go to Yankee Stadium after the games and pick up discarded score cards," Berrie explains. "I'd clean them up [by erasing the pencil marks and smoothing the wrinkles] and take them back the next day and sell them for 10 cents."

Humble beginnings, yes, but he was profitable at it. In fact, jokes Berrie, "I've been trying to match that gross profit margin ever since."

At 11, he developed his own newspaper delivery route, distributing his papers from a borrowed baby carriage. He did odd jobs, worked as a delivery boy, and was even an amateur bookie for a brief time. After high school, he attended college and did a stint in the military. But he never had the patience to finish his degree. "I was eager to make an honest man of myself," Berrie says.

His first job after college, at age 23, was selling toys for a now-defunct Chicago toy company. Here, Berrie found his calling. Within a year, he branched out to become a manufacturer's representative, working for five toy and novelty firms on straight commission.

The entrepreneurial structure of being a manufacturer's rep suited Berrie, but in the end, it wasn't entrepreneurial enough. "I would bring [the manufacturers] certain suggestions as to products I thought would sell, and I was frustrated that they didn't really show an interest," he says. "By 1963, I'd been doing this for about seven years. I had experience, and I knew people who could make products for me. So I continued to work as a manufacturer's rep, but I also invested $500 in some products and rented a converted garage." Russ Berrie and Co. was born.

Berrie's first products were primarily basic toys and impulse gift items such as wind-up gadgets and Indian dolls he purchased from various manufacturers.

Early sales didn't require much extra effort. "I would see my customers and sell them the lines I was representing. Then I'd take out the half-dozen or so different items I had [in my line]," Berrie recalls. With a local teenager's help, Berrie would pack orders and type invoices in the evenings. Orders may have only averaged between $70 and $100, but they added up: Between August and December 1963, Berrie generated a healthy $60,000 worth of sales.

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This article was originally published in the September 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: A Real Toy Story.

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