At the tail end of 2015, Melbourne-based toy company Moose Toys had a lot to celebrate. The business had finished at number six in the US toy market, a feat no other non-US company except Lego has ever managed – and it was the maker of the year’s top-selling toy. It’s no surprise then that chairman and co-CEO Manny Stul was also named as Australian Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year for 2015. This weekend, the Australian entrepreneur was singled out from 55 others as the Ernst and Young World Entrepreneur of the Year, reaffirming his global success. As the first Australian to win the award, it’s clear they do things differently enough at Moose to deserve such recognition.
“The first thing we did was change the whole culture,” Manny tells Collective Hub of his acquisition (alongside director Jacqui Tobias, his wife, and co-CEO Paul Solomon, his stepson) of Moose Toys in 2000, “the whole operation, the whole value system, and introduce a true, innovative environment.”
Like everywhere else at the moment, innovation is a Moose buzzword – and it doesn’t just apply to the end product. Manny has a disruptive approach to every aspect of the business: HR, accounting and design, but knows it’s not as easy as flicking on an ‘innovation switch’.
“It comes from the top, it’s got to be instilled in spending time with everyone,” he explains. “As a CEO, the most important thing is to keep people motivated and get them to understand the vision and what the goal of the company is and make sure everyone’s got the same unified look and vision.”
With the global toy industry operating mainly out of Los Angeles and the bulk of major companies creating products as a result of licensing deals with films, TV series or consumer brands, the products created by Moose Toys (and its brands including Shopkins, Beados and Qixels) stand out in the market as something truly original – and that’s no accident.
“We operate the exact opposite way,” says Manny of companies that ‘label-slap’ products. “We believe we should have the innovative product, concept or direction [and that] will help us generate the sales.”
This approach comes straight from the lessons Manny learned running his first business, Skansen, which he founded in 1974. At the time of public listing in 1993, it was Australia’s most successful giftware company.
“I had no idea what I was doing, and I mean literally – I had no experience in business,” he says. “I didn’t have a mentor or anything so whatever I learned, I learned by getting my fingers burnt. But I never made the same mistake twice.”
With hopes of selling his giftware products Australiawide, overcoming the challenge of a fairly remote location in Perth was his biggest hurdle.
“Perth is the most isolated capital city in the world, so if I wanted to sell to Melbourne or Sydney, which was my aspiration, it took four or five days for the trucks to get across there and unload. Why would anyone in Melbourne or Sydney buy the same stuff from somebody in Perth when they can get it locally?” he says. “Consequently, I learned very quickly that I had to have something that was unique and innovative and that became part of the DNA of Skansen and transposed into Moose.”
When Manny arrived at Moose Toys, the company had a dozen employees. Now with 250 staff and set to turn over AU$600 million this year, maintaining the right environment has been management’s most difficult and most rewarding challenge.
“Culture is the most important thing, and the quality of people – as you grow, that’s the hardest thing to sustain,” he explains. “[The idea is] that people still treat the company as their own. We work very hard at that.”
Moose Toys co-CEO Paul Soloman, director Jacqui Tobias and co-CEO and chairman Manny Stul
The company doesn’t just inject a sense of fun into the end product, but every step along the way. For the employee of the year for example, there’s the reward of a trip to any destination they choose. And at the company’s Melbourne HQ there’s yoga, an organic vegetable garden (to encourage staff to enjoy fresh produce at lunch) and talks that encourage personal development. The office itself is also built in the likeness of a children’s playground.
“Eight hours of every 24 hours you spend at work… you’ve got to be enjoying it,” Manny says. “I mean, what a miserable life if you’re going to a place, working with people you don’t like, doing something you don’t like and just going through the motions. Some people have no choice because of mortgages and kids and stuff like that, but if you do, you’ve got to be working in an environment you really enjoy.”
When it comes to achieving goals as a company, Manny passionately argues for people, rather than numbers. “You get so caught up in the money-making, trying to achieve successful numbers without fully appreciating that you can’t really achieve that sustainably without all the other positives that are needed, like the right culture and environment.
“Most people think money is the primary motivation but that’s not what’s going to keep the really, really great people. They have to have job satisfaction and ownership of what they’re doing. And respect: we treat everyone with a great deal of respect.”
That extends of course, to his executive team. With his son as co-CEO and his wife Jacqui as director (and a key voice in the development of girls’ products), some may suspect that heads occasionally butt. Yet Manny says it’s just the opposite.
“The synergy [between us] works because everything’s done with cooperation,” he says of the way the family and their roles work. “And we never have arguments! We have differences of opinion, of course, but there’s never any hostility at all.”
And to be clear: there are no free tickets. “None of us are here because we’re family – it’s all based on merit and capability and talent. That’s the reason why the company’s so successful,” he says. “We don’t carry passengers. Of the 250 people [here], if the person who wasn’t performing or was disruptive was a family member, they’d be gone.”
And while the company keeps its finger on the global toys pulse by attending trade shows and communicating with retailers and distributors, digital tools have been key in closing the physical gap between its main operating space in Melbourne and the offices across the world. Speaking of technology, the company’s products are also gaining considerable ground thanks to a growing trend in ‘unboxing’ channels on YouTube, where users – mostly kids – actually unbox new toys and talk viewers through the uses, advantages and what they’re like to hold. The company’s uber-popular Shopkins range has seen over 900 million views on various unboxing channels. Yet despite being a major force in the global toy market, Moose Toys sits relatively alone in its home market.
“There’s no one in Australia that’s got previous experience in the toy industry because there is no toy industry in Australia. We’ve got heaps of engineers and designers, but we’ve had to teach them.”
And while Manny sees nurturing staff as “business 101”, he also knows it’s much more than words. “The staff know, that’s the other thing – you can’t fool them [about] whether you really care or not if you just go through the motions. They need to understand that you really care about them and care about the business.”
And in Manny, that care is certainly palpable. “I love getting up in the morning and getting to work. I can’t wait to get to work,” he says. “What we’re creating… it’s not as if we’re just selling cars or metal or commodities, we’re actually creating stuff that makes kids genuinely happy and excited so that’s a very positive thing.”
Read the full story in Issue 31.
Images: David Brewer