Opinion

Behind the scenes tour: Exploring the magic of a US toy inventor’s workshop

15 min read

24 August 2016

Former deputy editor

Ever wondered what takes place in a toy inventor’s workshop? One that has operated in the US over a period of almost 30 years? I did – which is why Real Business was granted a tour of Chicago-based Big Monster Toys with CEO and president Don Rosenwinkel.

As a kid, each year I’d know that Christmas had truly arrived from the Toys R Us advert arriving on TV screens – good old Geoffrey the Giraffe. The fact that a piece of marketing material can have such an impact on a young mind and still provide a feeling of nostalgia today is hugely powerful.

But what would Toys R Us be without the heroes behind the scenes? I am, of course, referring to the very human, non-Elven, toy inventors dreaming up the products that hit the stores in force throughout the year, every year.

It’s said that creativity and inspiration can be found in many different environments, from the shower to dreams, but a business with a sole purpose of inventing is something else entirely.

In a world where many children are glued to their parents’ smartphones and tablets, Big Monster Toys (BMT) in Chicago has continued to thrive. Operating over three decades, the company invents an idea and sells the IP to the corporate toy giants including Mattel, Hasbro and so on – but we’ll come to that in a separate interview piece.

BMT’s CEO and president Don Rosenwinkel was kind enough to provide a personal tour of the workshop during my time in the Windy City – when in attendance at the Sage Summit – to offer insight on what it takes to continue running in a business in a marketplace that has seen great change over the years.

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“This is where we show all the products. It’s all about secrecy. One of our clients may invest $3m, $4m, $5m to get a product to market, maybe even $10m, so they’ve got to know nobody else knows about that idea. So this room is designed to look like a bank vault, really secure,” said Rosenwinkel.

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Vision

Paint a picture for your customers to encourage that buy-in. Why do they need your service or products? BMT leaves nothing to chance.

“We do what are called sizzle films, which are basically mini or full-blown commercials. Part of what we’re doing is selling the marketing idea too, so we’re saying here’s how you should market it. We basically make a commercial for everything we create,” detailed Rosenwinkel.

It’s easy enough for businesses to create videos with smartphones these days, many of which come with in-built editing tools, in order to encourage a market appetite. However, BMT comes equipped with green and blue screens, which allows staff to superimpose backgrounds and so on.

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Rosenwinkel made it clear that the territory I was now entering was not open the public and kindly requested I let him know if I wanted to take any pictures, so as to prevent any of the firm’s valuable secrets escaping. Continue the tour on the next page.

Tech advancements

Social media is probably a channel SMEs are generally guilty of underutilising, but the fact of the matter is that new technologies can be incredibly powerful, even if they can come across as daunting at first. 3D printing has been hugely beneficial at BMT, for example.

Rosenwinkel said: “3D printing is the hot thing right now and it has really changed our business. We’ve got printers working 24 hours a day and when we come back in the morning the work is done, whereas before we had to hire someone to work all night to do that.”

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Team spirit

As the saying goes, there is no I in team. And, it’s important that bosses and employees alike recognise and appreciate that their peers are all different and integral to the operation.

BMT actually has a visual, tangible representation of that ethos in the workshop – it’s a train, and employees are the fuel powering it during the journey to its destination.

The kitchen itself has been built into a structure of an old fashioned train carriage, while there’s also a working toy train that motors around the studio.

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“A lot of our projects around here are all about how we have to work together for the business to work, so our theme has always been a train,” Rosenwinkel explained.

“Everybody who starts here gets their own toy cart, and you build something on it that’s representative of yourself – you’re all part of the train and everybody works together. That’s actually electrified and it all goes around the office.”

He joked that a derailment meant that a few of the carriages had disappeared from the tracks, as the firm employees some 25 people.

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The right environment

Bland grey walls and a no speaking policy is unlikely to do anything but demotivate staff members, and yet some firms still have an old fashioned décor greeting employees. Would a splash of paint really be too much trouble? Some paintings perhaps? It wouldn’t break the bank. For BMT, it’s the building itself which is rather special, however.

Rosenwinkel said: “We have a pretty spectacular space. Our skylight is 300ft long and we replaced all the glass and put thermopaned windows in there –  they’re operable too, so you can let all the hot air out. Previously it was all covered with black tar.

“It’s great, especially in winter because it’s cold in Chicago, but it still feels like you’re in southern California. Whether it’s December or August it still feels the same in here, which makes winter a lot nicer than normal.”

Many bosses will be all too familiar with the political office battle of air conditioning versus heating, so a steady and welcoming temperature all year round would likely be a Godsend.

As for the actual structure, there aren’t any annoying pillars getting in the way of feng shui or decorative freedoms.

“This building is interesting too – it’s called a bow truss. It was very heavily used in Chicago at the turn of the century. The idea is these trusses support all of the loads, so there are no internal walls. Nothing in here is holding anything else up,” he added.

And where individual workspaces are concerned, staff are again invited to showcase their individuality.

“All the design areas are unique; none are exactly like the others. They’re different shapes, some guys are messy, some are tidy. There’s usually lots of clutter, that’s very typical.”

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You might think that working with toys on a daily basis is a perk of the job in itself, but BMT has more than that to offer staff, so continue touring the Chicago studio on the next page as the tour continues out the back and upstairs to a specially built area.

Supply and demand

You don’t want staff to have to bring their own pencil case full of stationery into the office because your cupboard is bare – that’s just going to cause frustration. The same goes for sluggish computers that crash on a regular basis and so on.

So given the inventive nature of BMT, the firm tries to ensure that staff only need to have their minds on the task at hand, without getting worked up on a lack of resources.

I’ve mentioned the use of 3D printers, but there are also sewing stations and all kinds of furs and fabric available to choose from. You can also find moulds, liquid baths and lasers too.

“Everywhere you look there are raw materials that we use to build products with, and a billion different types of plastic,” Rosenwinkel said. “Different plastics are needed to do different jobs, so we’ve got a little bit of all of that around here.

“We try and provide anything our designers will need, so wherever their mind is, they’re not burdened down by how do we make it – we’ve got it here, all the right machines, all the right materials. So we say ‘all you’ve got to be is creative’, so that’s what we try and make.”

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Perks of the job

Whether it’s free fruit or early finishes, something seemingly small can actually make a very big difference to the emotions of workers. In the Windy City, indoor parking can be a bit like living the dream.

“This is a big perk for Chicago – we’ve got indoor parking. In the winter this is priceless,” detailed Rosenwinkel. The space doubles up as a storage area too, with some several thousand prototypes kept safe and sound in place.

Building on the desire to offer an uncomplicated working environment, all of the toys are numbered and categorised on computer, which means there’s no need to wildly spend hours rifling through a stale filing system manually.

“We realised after being here for a while we needed more storage so we built a mezzanine. We can work long hours, so basically there are sheets and towels and stuff if people want to hang out. They’re either working out or sleeping here,” said Rosenwinkel as he showcased the den-cum-gym area.

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Flexible working

Yep, flexible working. It can be incredibly handy, delivering workers the opportunity for a better work-life balance. And it doesn’t have to be extreme either, as Rosenwinkel detailed the strategy that works for BMT.

“We really try not to burn people out, so they put in about nine hours a day – though it’s not mandatory. Some guys [at other companies] work 12-14 hours a day, but we don’t do that because we know that just doesn’t work,” he said.

“Sometimes you’ll get in a crunch where there’s a deadline and you’ll work a bit longer, but then we can have people get their head down.”

While there aren’t specified hours as such, the studio is open from 7.30am to 5.30pm. “You don’t have to be there the whole time, but sometimes you can be there earlier rather than later,” Rosenwinkel continued.

“Some guys do get in earlier or later to beat the traffic, but they’re the basic parameters. Very few people are here for a ten-hour day, they might take an hour or two for lunch, we don’t have a clock-in machine or monitor anything like that.”

So there you have it. Even though BMT staff may be encouraged to think like children at times, they’re treated like adults and given what they need to make things happen.

Not every leader will be able to adopt each practice for their firm, but there should be at least one trend that can be adopted into their own workplace. Who says work can’t be fun?

Read more from my time in Chicago, which included keynotes from Ashton Kutcher, Richard Branson and more.