A Real Toy Story

Get The Message

Over the next two years, sales mushroomed to $250,000 in 1964 and $750,000 in 1965. By then, Berrie was ready to give up his rep job and become a full-time enterprise, moving out of the garage and into a tiny bedroom office in his apartment. He had a part-time secretary, a bookkeeper, a handful of independent reps and a stable of products with potential.

Like what? Berrie's goods were largely novelties sporting cute messages. "We developed a product called Fuzzy Wuzzies. They were little sheepskin characters on a wooden base, and they said `Happy Birthday' or `I Love You,' or [a variety of other messages]," Berrie recalls. "We also did Loving Cup trophies that said `World's Greatest Lover' and `World's Greatest Wife,' and so on."

Message novelties proved to be a lucrative niche in the not-yet-liberated '60s. "They were like three-dimensional greeting cards," says Berrie. "Only these were items you would keep." In an era when self-expression was fairly subdued, sweet little novelties that could convey love or appreciation were real commodities.

As times changed, so did Berrie's messages. Although birthday greetings and messages of love never went out of style, by 1968 Americans were ready for something a little bolder. Russ Berrie and Co. introduced Sillisculpts, plastic message figurines with a little more attitude. Two of the most memorable are the "I love you this much!" statuette and another of an old barrister crying "Sue the bastards!" "I think every lawyer in America had one," Berrie laughs.

During the company's formative years, messages, styles and product lines came and went. But the basic formula for success that Berrie originally devised continued strong. He remained active in developing and acquiring gift products with wide-ranging appeal. And he didn't venture into extraneous areas like manufacturing.

"I like to say that manufacturers should manufacture, accountants should account, and salespeople should sell," says Berrie. "We're a sales and marketing organization; we're a product- design organization. That's what we do best." By outsourcing its manufacturing operations, Russ Berrie and Co. has kept itself nimble--a vital attribute in the trend-dominated world of gifts.

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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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