For the 29-year-old CEO of Wham-o, getting the storied company back on track is no game.
Author Allison Weiss Entreking Illustration Ross Macdonald
THE PACKAGE ARRIVED.
Kyle Aguilar had been tracking it for the last 24 hours, watching its progress as it snaked its way to him at the Los Angeles offices of Wham-O. It was November 2009, and Aguilar was the new CEO of the 62-year-old company that had given the world toys such as the Frisbee, the Slip ’N Slide and the Hula Hoop. Over the past 10 years, though, Wham-O hadn’t done much in terms of innovating. Rather like an old plaything itself, the company had lost its shine, ceding ground to newer, hungrier rivals. Some said Wham-O was history; Aguilar didn’t think so. He just needed to make the classic toys that had long captivated Baby Boomers relevant and attractive to their kids and grandkids. And what was inside the package was supposed to help him do it.
The solidly built 29-year-old made a beeline to the copy room, where the brown box waited on the floor, just below a framed image of the original Wham-O Hacky Sack packaging from 1983. “Official Footbag!” the thick blue letters cried.
Aguilar crouched down, ripped the box open and reached inside the sea of Styrofoam peanuts. He pulled out three toys—one orange, one baby blue and one yellow. They looked like Frisbees.
Aguilar stood and turned around, raising an eyebrow at a knot of employees who had gathered in silence. This moment wasn’t just about Aguilar; it was about the company’s survival. Aguilar raised the yellow Frisbee into the air. “This,” he told his team, “is going to be the next big thing.” Then he slammed it to the ground.
A few people gasped. Aguilar looked down. Then came the claps and whistles. Though it was at least partially made out of wood (Sprigwood, to be exact, a patented mix of recycled plastic and sawdust reclaimed from furniture companies) the Frisbee hadn’t broken. This despite the unanimous skepticism of Aguilar’s factory managers, who’d all declared it couldn’t be done. Sure the thing would fly, they predicted, but it couldn’t possibly withstand the no-holds-barred play kids might subject it to. They were wrong. Aguilar had transformed the Frisbee—one of the great triumphs of the Age of Plastic—into something made entirely of recycled materials. Better yet, he’d done it inexpensively enough to match the price of the original.
“For so long, I had been wondering, ‘How do you get innovative with a Frisbee?’” Aguilar says later, in his office in Woodland Hills. “I mean, a Frisbee? It’s a flying disc; it is what it is. But then we had the answer. Make it environmentally friendly.”
The boss didn’t stop to give his employees a little speech. He needed to talk with his factory about doing the same thing for the Hula Hoop.
Aguilar grew up in Southern California, where his dad worked in promotional-toy manufacturing. When he was four, he would sometimes accompany his father to the office, where he would sit behind the desk and snap his fingers at employees who walked in. “Hurry up!” the preschooler would tell them, to the embarrassment of his father. The kid didn’t mean any harm; he just liked being in charge.
By the time Aguilar was in his teens, he’d decided to follow his dad into the toy business, and at 23, he began operating a small facility in Mexico that manufactured action figures for various companies. Within a year, he was named CEO and began aggressively acquiring additional toy factories around the globe. He still runs them all under the banner Manufacturing Marvel, which now has eight factories and produces more than two billion toys a year (everything from Bugs Bunny bottle caps to Shrek figurines), thanks to the efforts of 6,000 employees—Aguilar’s dad among them.
Aguilar’s relationship with Wham-O began last year when he called the company to inquire about manufacturing Frisbees for them in the United States. In the discussions that ensued, he learned that its Chinese-based owners were open to selling the entire business. Although Wham-O did $80 million in sales in 2005, its numbers had slipped with the economy, and it had only released one hit product in the last 10 years—the SnowBall Blaster, which packs and launches snowballs as far as 80 feet. Wham-O’s owners at the time were the company’s fourth since 1982, a sign of serious upheaval for a business that spent its first 34 years under the leadership of the same two Californians who founded it. To make matters worse, the toy industry had gone through massive changes since the 1950s, when Wham-O first shook up the toy box. In fact, childhood itself had changed, with kids spending more and more playtime indoors, absorbed by TV, computers and videogames. And recently, the market has grown more competitive as grown-up gizmos begin finding their way into youngsters’ backpacks. “We live in a situation where toy dollars are going to things like iPods and cell phones,” notes Chris Byrne, content director at timetoplaymag.com. “And of course computers.”
Despite these challenges, Aguilar was impressed with the sheer number of classic Wham-O toys that had survived on the market for decades. Silly String. Super Balls. Hula Hoops. Though conceptually simple, these iconic toys could often provide years of fun, not to mention getting kids off the couch and out of doors, where they could socialize and burn off energy. “Wham-O is built around this type of toy culture that brings people together,” Aguilar says. “That’s a great foundation to start building on with a company.” In July 2009, he joined with a group of investors to purchase Wham-O and set about reinvigorating the brand.
A year before taking over Wham-O, Aguilar had begun doing manufacturing work for Sprig Toys Inc., a small Colorado-based company that had developed an inexpensive, eco-friendly material called Sprigwood. Aguilar saw the stuff as a “gold mine,” and he told the owners as much. They said they hoped a big toy company might one day agree and purchase the rights to their material. They had figured on a timeline of 10 to 15 years. A little more than 12 months later, Wham-O’s newly minted CEO gave them a call. The two companies merged, and the new Sprigwood Frisbee will hit stores in time for Christmas.
Aguilar is also aggressively marketing the new Hula Hoop FX, which is more than three times heavier than the traditional Hula Hoop, making it a hit at aerobics classes around the country.
According to Wham-O chief operating officer Mike Rosales, though, not all of the company’s toys are destined for a comeback; the signature 1948 Slingshot, for example, would send company lawyers running for the hills given today’s more litigious climate. “There are some products that, personally, Kyle and I would love to bring back,” he says, “but I don’t think we’d be able to just from a safety standpoint.”
Aguilar’s fine with that, since he knows the company will only thrive if it comes up with innovative new toys to add to its portfolio. To that end, his team is working overtime developing a slew of ideas (Aguilar won’t disclose any for fear they might be copied), and Wham-O is currently accepting submissions from inventors who think they have something that fits the brand. Only toys that function in the real world—as opposed to the digital realm—need apply; Wham-O isn’t interested in the sort of playthings that only give the thumbs a workout. “All of our products are activity-based—that’s how Wham-O was founded and what we continue to do,” Rosales says.
With Wham-O now producing 200 products, Aguilar says he won’t be satisfied until the company is once again considered the ultimate source for active, generation-spanning toys. “Unfortunately, a lot of the younger generation is not as familiar with Wham-O, because the company hasn’t been as innovative in last ten years,” Aguilar says. “I’m taking responsibility for making it happen again.”
In the age of the iPod Touch and the Nintendo DS, it won’t be easy. But it certainly sounds like fun.
ALLISON WEISS ENTREKIN is an Atlanta-based writer and editor whose Hula Hoop record is a pathetic seven seconds.