If anyone can be said to be a “lifer” in the toy industry, it’s Bob Fuhrer, founder and president of Nextoy. He had his first product concept produced when he was about 15—a rocket for Estes that looked like a human toe and was called (wait for the joke) the Missile Toe. Estes was looking for concepts to appeal to a younger and broader audience, and Fuhrer’s father (a lifelong toy man himself) worked for Estes—havin also worked for Matchbox, Damon Corp., and others. Fuhrer’s concept sold well enough—in what, even then, was a challenging market. More importantly, however, it started him on a path that would guide his career: looking for and addressing niches and opportunities in the market. After college and a stint at a small company, he started Nextoy in 1981, and this year celebrates 25 years in the business. Though he is often lumped in with inventors by people trying to describe what he does, Fuhrer makes no such claim, and is, in fact, quite modest about his talents. In the past quarter century, Fuhrer, like everyone else in this business, has seen tremendous evolution. Gone are the days when a concept could be sold into a toy company based on a few sketches and a paper model. With the growth in the sophistication of toys, Fuhrer says that toy manufacturers need companies like his that they can partner with to make a concept a reality. “The days of going in and showing a papier maché prototype are done,” he says. “When you place a product with a big company, they expect to get service as well. Today, companies want patents and substantial backing. They want a lot of the design and engineering done.” Part of the pitch, he says, is not just the idea for the toy but solutions around manufacturing, cost, and many other elements. Rather than seeing this as a challenge, however, Fuhrer finds this new process exciting because it creates a new model for doing business that allows him to facilitate bringing together diverse companies with specific areas of expertise. He cites Airblade coming from Mattel later this year as an example. The product was invented by Top Notch Toys (TNT), which partnered with Casio Consumer Products (CCP). Fuhrer put them together with Mattel. While Fuhrer calls himself a “deal maker,” he is quick to point out that his success in helping to bring concepts to life is not a solo effort. In the summer of 1982, he happened to meet a representative of Asahi Corp. As a result of that meeting, he embarked on what would become a specialty—serving as a liaison between Japanese and American companies. The first major hit Fuhrer and his Japanese partners had was a line of skill-and-action games called T.H.I.N.G.S. (an acronym for Totally Hilarious, Incredibly Neat Games of Skill) marketed through Milton Bradley. These were small skill-andaction games, and nine different titles were introduced over three years. Suddenly, Fuhrer and his partners were experts in skill-and-action games. They rode the revival in the category in the mid-to-late 1980s with such hits as Bongo Kongo, Crocodile Dentist, and Gator Golf. He says his partnership with Asahi allowed them to blend Eastern technology with Western marketing and together become a dependable resource for toy companies. When Asahi was bought by Casio and became Casio Creative Products (CCP), Fuhrer remained part of the team, adding Casio’s expertise in radio control and its history of creating great mechanisms and high-quality products to the partnership. At the time, he says, radio control was an expensive, hobby item, but by working with CCP and American toy companies, Fuhrer’s team virtually restaged the whole radio-control category. His first major hit in that category was Dragonfly, which Toymax brought to market after, as often happens, other companies turned it down. As for what it takes to be successful in this market, Fuhrer says that it’s most important to understand how the market has changed. “What I’m seeing is the influence of the video game era that requires products have more depth. Some of that is achieved by using electronics because there’s a lot of depth of play. Now kids have developed motor and mental skills that allow them to do more. What I think is going to happen from that is a huge expansion in sales of hobby-grade products—focused more on radio control. For instance, radio-control helicopters have typically been very difficult to maneuver. You could give those

controls to a kid who grew up in gaming, and the learning curve is a lot shorter.” The two key points Fuhrer says are essential to success in this market are people and alliances—not so surprising, really. He says that when the toy companies have talented product and marketing people—and he says there’s lots of talent in the business right now—“it makes limited guys like me look really good” because they have the ability to nurture a product along. He also says that it’s important to have good alliances in Asia to be able to do the engineering planning and costing as well as negotiate cultural differences. While shows like American Inventor and all sorts of other conferences and TV commercials glamorize the process of bringing products to market, the romantic image of a lone inventor in his garage is just a fairytale. More likely, it takes the consistent, detail-oriented work of companies like Nextoy and CCP in partnership with a toy company to make the vision a reality.

Bob is also on the Board of Directors for the "Make-a-Wish Foundation" of the Hudson Valley. Click here for more information.