Your bestselling book, Toy Wars, covered Alan Hassenfeld’s time as Hasbro CEO. What inspired you to go back to that story and write Kid Number One: Alan Hassenfeld and Hasbro?
There are two reasons. The first is that I had more to tell in terms of the early days of Hasbro and the arrival of the Hassenfeld Brothers – Herman, Hillel, and Henry – from Poland to the United States. The second reason is that Toy Wars chronicled Hasbro up to the year 1997. I was immersed in Hasbro while writing Toy Wars and got to know the leadership team well. I had a Hasbro ID and flew in the private jet. I stayed in touch with Alan Hassenfeld (CEO from 1989 to 2003 ) and Alfred (Al) Verrecchia (CEO from 2003 to 2008). So much has happened since Toy Wars was published. Some bad decisions almost sank the company and it has risen again through the efforts of Al and current CEO, Brian Goldner. Given the access I had, it seemed like a great time to write a sequel.
What qualities does Alan Hassenfeld embody that make him unique in the toy industry?
Hasbro is a very different company than its perennial arch-rival Mattel. The book title “Kid Number One” is the nickname Alan gave himself; it refers to being a kid at heart and never forgetting you were a child at one point, with joy and openness to learning. Alan has maintained that joy and desire to learn all his life. He often said that while 20% of his time as Hasbro CEO and Chairman was dealing with banks, mergers, acquisitions, and corporate operation, the other 80% of his time was spent on fun. Both Al and Brian echo that approach in their leadership. It’s a balancing act; you can’t be a kid running a multi-billion dollar company but you do need to have a heart. Not every corporate CEO has a heart.
The whole philosophy of giving back and bettering communities goes back to the original Hassenfeld Brothers’ experience escaping religious persecution in Poland. The brothers arrived in the United States having survived their time in Poland and became successful businessmen. They never forgot where they came from and began giving back as they became successful.
What were Alan Hassenfeld’s notable contributions to Hasbro during his time as CEO?
Alan bought Kenner Products and Tonka during his time as CEO. He also bought licensing rights to Pokémon trading cards around 2002. Pokémon did well the first year but it fell through the floor after that. Around that same time, the latest Star Wars movie, Attack of the Clones, underperformed at the box office. Alan was the Chairman, CEO, majority stockholder, grandson of the founders, and son of former Hasbro president and G.I. Joe creator Merrill Hassenfeld, but he didn’t let his ego get in the way. Al Verrecchia was more skilled with finances and numbers and Alan knew it was time for him to step down to let Al run the company. Al saved Hasbro. Interestingly, before leaving Hasbro, Alan bought the rights to Magic: The Gathering. That has turned out to be a tremendous asset. The toy industry is boom and bust.
Merrill Hassenfeld had his own experience with product failure. He brought Flubber to the market in 1962. Flubber was a Silly Putty-type of material made from mineral oil and synthetic rubber. Kids broke out into rashes as they played with the product. It was pulled from the market by the FDA in 1963 amid multiple lawsuits. Hasbro lost a lot of money and could have tanked. A year later, they released G.I. Joe and made a record amount of money.
What might surprise people about Alan Hassenfeld’s character?
His sense of humour. Alan has an appreciation for humour, jokes, and wordplay. He’s 70 years old and still very, very funny. He’s not in the public eye much anymore, his work is behind the scenes. He is willing and eager to help causes that are important to him, such as the health and well-being of children, education, and medical care. A few years ago, he gave a $50 million gift to Hassenfeld’s Children Hospital at NYU Langone, and he created the Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Rhode Island, now open 25 years.
Alan is also a great lunch partner and loves a double espresso to finish off his lunch.
What influence does Alan Hassenfeld have with Hasbro today?
It’s his legacy and knowledge. He remains a major stockholder in Hasbro and has daily contact with the current CEO, Brian Goldner. He chairs the executive board and regularly goes to Hasbro University, an internal education program where new and longtime employees gather to share company knowledge and history. Alan is a bit of living history. He has a photographic memory for products. In fact, his brother, Stephen, tried to create a fashion doll to compete with Mattel’s Barbie. Alan knows the details of all Stephen’s attempts, including The World of Love Doll, Leggy, and Peteena the poodle doll. Alan remains influential within Hasbro.
What’s up next for you?
I’m always working on a couple of books; mystery, horror, sci-fi. There is renewed interest in Toy Wars, so I’m releasing it as an ebook and paperback.
Five questions, one fascinating person (or team!) – look into the minds of movers and shakers in the nostalgia, game, play, or toy industry.