A Real Toy Story

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Berrie considers the ability to read people his key business skill--whether that means motivating his employees, negotiating with suppliers, or zeroing in on the needs of the marketplace. Indeed, nothing could be more critical to the company's success than its CEO's ability to predict, gauge and follow consumer demand.

From the beginning, Berrie understood the value of tracking customer response. "For instance, early on we became aware that certain messages would sell really well," he says. "Anything that said `I love you this much!' would sell. `Happy Birthday' or `Get Well Soon' were other good sellers. So whenever we created new [message] products, we'd use these basic messages. In essence, we watched the marketplace, watched what customers were buying, watched our own product line, and expanded on what was selling."

The same principle applies today--only the company's product line is now so vast that the process is nearly scientific. When your company sells 7,000 products in more than 50,000 retail outlets, your internal sales figures alone can give you a pretty accurate read of market trends.

Still, Berrie relies on old-fashioned fact gathering. "One of the most important things an entrepreneur can do is get out and talk to customers--speak to people so you can understand what's going on in the marketplace," he says. "To this day, I go to all the trade shows to really [tap into] the pulse of the public. It's the only way to know the direction they're going."

Berrie says that experience has grounded him. He's witnessed the coming and going of so many trends that it's harder now to surprise him. This doesn't mean he's catatonic, though. Berrie is still capable of being amused, beguiled and carried away. Or at least he was in the early '90s, when a stumpy character with a gentle smile and the scariest hair ever stepped up to the plate--and hit the ball out of the park.

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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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