AIB Featured Business Leader – Manny Stul
You may not know the name Manny Stul, but if you’re a parent to small children, you may have his products in your house. He’s the Chairman and Co-CEO of Moose Toys, and while the company is only the fourth largest toy company in Australia, Stul’s marketing acuity and runaway hits saw him named EY World Entrepreneur of the Year in 2016. He’s the first Australian to win the honour. He also made it onto the BRW Rich List for the first time, debuting at #39 with a fortune of $1.28billion held amongst his family.
Stul had a challenging start to life. He was born to Polish parents, both survivors of the Holocaust, in a German war refugee camp in 1949. The family left Germany by boat when the young Stul was just seven months old to seek refuge in Australia. He and his parents, none of whom could speak any English, were placed in a refugee camp in Northam, 100 kilometres north of Perth, where they stayed for three years. When Stul was four, they moved to Perth, where the Stul family shared a single house with three other migrant families. Stul’s father found work as a cabinet maker and the family worked hard to establish themselves. “My parents were no different from a lot of migrants,” Stul told the Australian Financial Review. “They both had a very strong work ethic and were very moralistic and clear cut about what’s right and wrong.”
Stul attended school in Perth, but it didn’t agree with him. He dropped out to work as a labourer in northern Western Australia, which he did for several years to raise capital. And then, in 1974, he turned to business. His first venture was the giftware company Skansen, which he established from scratch and built up to the point where it was publicly listed in 1993 for more than $15 million. With his newfound wealth, Stul spent some time travelling the world. While the business was an import and distribution company, rather than building its own products, it was an early indication of Stul’s ability to see niches in retail demand and service them. One such product was a ‘belly button brush’ – a high quality paintbrush in a flip-lid box, aimed at ‘the man who has everything’.
So it isn’t, perhaps, surprising that Stul’s next venture was a toy business. It was more of a surprise to him, though. In 2000, Moose Toys, a small toy company established in 1985 that employed ten people was proposed to him as a financial investment. He wouldn’t be involved in the running of the company. But then “things went wrong”, says Stul, evasively, and he decided instead to buy out the partners and run the company himself. It wasn’t easy going: the struggling business was plagued with a problematic staff culture, inefficient systems and a reluctance to face change. Stul decided to start with a clean slate. He changed the staff, changed the office premises, and instituted systems that focused on collaborative idea sharing and innovation.
They enjoyed moderate success with a product called AquaSand, and then hit the big time with Mighty Beanz. Beanz are a small collectible based on the classic Mexican jumping bean, and proved so popular that they influenced future toy choices.
Today the company employs 200 workers, with an annual turnover of $600 million. In 2007, though, the flourishing company hit a road bump so big that it almost crashed completely. They were enjoying the success of Bindeez, craft beads which stuck together with the application of water and which won Toy of the Year at the 2007 Toy and Hobby Fair. Shortly afterwards, it was discovered that the manufacturers, who weren’t owned by Moose, had substituted a different chemical for the non-toxic glue that should have coated the beads. That chemical was GHB, known as a date rape drug and which can cause seizures and other serious side effects. A series of hospitalisations necessitated an urgent recall of the product, a wave of appalling publicity for the company and at least one large payout to the parents of an injured child.
The company’s woes were such that Stul was advised to go into administration. He refused. Over ten days, he struck an extraordinary 34 separate deals with his creditors and distributors and managed to stay in business. He relaunched Bindeez as Beados and then produced a string of hits, from Trash Packs to Little Live Pets, most of which are aimed at the female 4-11 year old age market. The path back wasn’t easy: Stul had to put stringest testing into place to ensure no such health issues could recur, convince a myriad of health authorities to lift the bans on Moose products and change arrangements with outsourced manufacturing companies. The company suffered hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of sales, so it needed some big successes to claw its way back.
And then in 2015 Stul’s Moose Toys launched Shopkins. Shopkins are collectible figurines based on grocery store items. Sold at a far lower price point than other popular toys like Barbies, Shopkins’ size makes them portable, and children bring them to school to display and trade. Indeed, Stul’s business partner David Solomon attributes the collectible nature of the toy as the main factor in its success, and its low pricing encourages consumers to buy them in bulk for trading away. Shopkins were named 2015 Girl Toy of the Year by the Toy Industry Association, and Stul arrived on the BRW Rich List on the same year.
At 67, Stul, who runs the company in conjunction with his wife Jacqui Tobias and step-son Paul Solomon, is of an age where most people are considering retirement. Bucking expectation, Stul has championed a young vibrant company culture more commonly found in entrepreneurs half his age. Moose’s headquarters are reminiscent of a Silicon Valley startup, with funky decor, playful gimmicks and employee benefits like a yoga teacher and organic vegetable garden. Maybe it’s working amongst all those toys that have ensured his continued joie de vivre, or the driven energy of a man who never takes his success for granted. Either way, an entire generation of children is hoping that he’ll continue making them smile.
This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: Business Insider, Australian Financial Review, Sydney Morning Herald, Financial Times, Racked, The Age and Moose Toys.
Image credit: AFR