For Arnie Rubin, selling toys has been all fun and games

Arnie Rubin has spent half a century in the toy business, and it's been all fun and games

The gig: Arnie Rubin has worked in the toy business for half a century, starting as a grunt who unloaded railroad cars and working his way up to chairman of Funrise Toy Corp., a Van Nuys company that manufactures Tonka trucks, Gazillion Bubbles and other popular toys.

Rubin, 68, notes that he's the same age as the Tonka truck line, which was established in 1947 and grew quickly, partly because of the wide availability of inexpensive surplus steel after the World War II industrial buildup.

First job: While at Fairfax High School, Rubin worked at a warehouse operated by Chemtoy on Santa Fe Avenue. He unloaded boxes of small glass jars from a train car on an adjacent rail spur. Later he was promoted to mixing the bubble solution that would go into the jars. "This was in 1964, and they retailed for just 10 cents," Rubin recalled.

Next step: Rubin became enamored of the toy business and took a job as a salesman with his then brother-in-law, Fred Kort, who represented toy manufacturers. "I was on the road selling, even though I was still too young to buy a client a drink," Rubin said.

Launching a business: In 1969 Rubin scratched together $10,000, including his savings and gift money left over from his bar mitzvah. Kort put in $30,000, and the two founded Imperial Toys. Their first product was a competitor to Wham-O's small, bouncy Super Ball. "It just exploded as a toy," Rubin said. "But with a 10-cent price, you had to sell a lot to make any money."

At first, Imperial's Teeny Bouncer ball sold just in California. But demand was so great that the partners expanded up the West Coast, and they received requests from distributors nationwide. They then added bubble solution to the product line and expanded into what Rubin called low-end rack merchandise of the type you would see in an aisle at the supermarket. Nothing retailed for more than a $1 in the beginning.

The partners parted ways in 1987, with Rubin selling his interest in the company to Kort.

A new chapter: Too young to retire, Rubin looked around for a new project. He persuaded a friend to let him use a back room of a law office on Ventura Boulevard to launch a new toy business that would import inexpensive items from Asia to distribute in the U.S. Tiny toy cars had become a popular item, so Rubin developed Micro Magnifiers — tiny cars and planes that came with a magnifying glass for kids to examine the details.

Kmart picked up the product, launching the business. He called the company Funrise. "The idea was that every day should begin with fun," Rubin said.

Innovation: Rubin realized that microprocessors had become cheap enough and small enough to embed in toys to create both sound and light patterns.

"I think we were the first to put sound and light in toy vehicles," he said. "We started with a line of City Force police cars and firetrucks.... It was a home run."

Tonka connection: The spiffy trucks caught the attention of Hasbro, which owns the Tonka brand. The toy company contacted Rubin, and over a period of two years, the two businesses cemented a partnership. They signed a deal in 1998, and the venture grew to encompass Tonka's entire line and then to other Hasbro products, such as the My Little Pony toys. Funrise is responsible for the manufacturing and marketing of the toys. Hasbro collects royalty fees on the sales.

Funrise sells millions of Tonka trucks annually. The line accounts for more than half of Funrise's business.

Rubin said the company focuses on designing versions of trucks children would see on a road or at a construction site and then enhances them with computer chips that control the sound and light. The business works because children still like to play with trucks, and there is a "backlash among parents who are trying to get their kids away from a tablet or video screen," Rubin said.

Exit plan: Eight years ago, as Rubin was about to turn 60, he decided to sell the business. Matrix Holdings Ltd., a Chinese contract manufacturer that made toys for McDonald's Happy Meals packages, wanted to expand into its own lines. Matrix purchased Funrise for $23 million in cash plus Matrix stock options.

They reached a deal, and Rubin agreed to stay on for three years. But that's turned into more than eight years, and only recently did he give up the chief executive post. He remains chairman and a senior executive at Matrix.

What's next: As chairman, Rubin plans to provide strategic guidance but not be involved in the day-to-day operations of the company. That will give him more time to spend with his wife, Laura, at their second home in Park City, Utah.

jerry.hirsch

twitter:@latimesjerry

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