|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
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.