Jeff Imel, President, BMC Toys

BMC Toys is quickly becoming a household name since announcing a new line of female toy soldiers. Jeff Imel, company president, talks about the genesis of the idea and the challenges involved in creating a line from scratch.

Tell us about BMC Toys.

BMC Toys was founded in 1991 by Bill McMaster. Bill was a buyer for Toys “R” Us before starting his own company. The company’s original focus was historically themed plastic soldier playsets. That type of toy had all but disappeared from the market after the 1980s.

I was one of BMC Toys’ biggest buyers, through my online retail business, VictoryBuy. Bill died unexpectedly in 2014. With his family’s blessing, I took over BMC Toys. I’m very lucky to be part of Bill’s legacy; he was a good man with a great family. Bill’s son said to me, “Take good care of my dad’s company”.  No pressure.

BMC Toys still produces the classic army men collection and we’re expanding our line of products to include soldiers made from vintage American-made moulds manufactured in the United States.

The Friday Five

The company is getting a lot of press for a new product: plastic army women. You’ve said that you received many requests over the years to produce these. Then you received a letter from a six-year-old girl. What was special about her request?

About twice a year, I’m asked about adding plastic army women to our line. It was on my long list of potential products. In June 2018, retired Navy officer JoAnn Ortloff wrote me a letter asking about the absence of female figures. She’s a difficult person to say “no” to but she’s also right, female military figures should exist. That weekend, my sister and artist, Tina Imel, drew some sketches for me showing how the figures might look. We studied how to best represent female soldiers in a two-inch figure. We worked a lot on the hair; the representation of regulation hair for women serving in the military is very important.

I got busy with other aspects of the business, and the project was set aside until I received a letter from Brittany Lord on July 31, 2019. She sent me a letter from her daughter, Vivian, asking why plastic army women don’t exist. Vivian feels strongly about representation, particularly because she has a friend whose mother serves in the army. We agree with Vivan and are developing the product.

Since the local media picked up the story, the response has been nothing short of astonishing. We’ve been on the CBS News series “On The Road” with Steve Hartman and featured on a number of major news outlets. It’s been madness.

The Friday Five

BMC Toys is experiencing high demand for the new figures. What does that mean for your business? 

It’s a process. We needed to hire a sculptor to produce renderings of the figures; we’ve done that, and are expecting to have four different female figures in a package of 24. We’re working with our manufacturing partner on set-up and production. The plastic female soldiers will be available at this time next year (2020).

I’m getting dozens of requests for pre-order and am planning a crowdfunding campaign for November. BMC Toys is producing the female figures no matter what, but the crowdfunding campaign will allow us to expand the poses and offer some cool things for supporters. We’re working hard on this; it’s like laying down the track as the train is coming.

The Friday Five

Why do you think plastic army women have created such buzz?

It’s time. Women have served in the military for a long time and should be represented in this manner. Play is a vehicle for creativity and imagination. Sisters play with plastic toy soldiers along with their brothers, but have nothing to represent them in that play and no hero to identify with. It’s an unfulfilled wish for a lot of people. Women in the military feel under-represented and treated as less-than. JoAnn talks about going into places where she’s presumed to be a military wife rather than the accomplished veteran that she is. It’s time that changes.

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What’s next for BMC Toys?

I always have a list, I like to reinvent the business every five years or so. Along with the plastic female soldiers, BMC Toys is producing a line of coast guards, Buffalo Soldiers, and more playsets. At their best, playsets are a nod to art, history, and industrial design. At their worst, they are just a box of commercialized junk. A well-done playset is a beautiful thing, and we want to bring that back.

The Friday Five

Visit BMC Toys online to learn more about the company and its products.