Son of Polish Holocaust survivors lands in the toy world
By By Tiffany Hsu
|Los Angeles Times Staff Writer|
Sep 07, 2008 | 12:00 AM
The gig: President since 2001 of Playmates Toys Inc., whose 55 U.S. employees design and market toys manufactured by the Playmates Toys Ltd. branch in Hong Kong. The company went public in February after splitting from its 42-year-old parent, Playmates Holdings Ltd. of Hong Kong. Famous for producing toys based on the Disney princesses and on "The Land Before Time" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" franchises, the company is working on products to coincide with the summer 2009 release of the latest "Terminator" and " Star Trek" films. Playmates, known for its action figures and dolls, is also trying to expand into youth electronics. "It's competitive," Novak said. "We have to do what Mattel does with one-tenth the resources."
Background: Born in Sweden to Polish Holocaust survivors, Novak grew up mostly in Montreal, where his civil engineer father worked on several major buildings. Novak's younger brother owns a security firm there. As a youngster, Novak held a slew of jobs, including delivering newspapers on his bike. As an immigrant "starting at the bottom of the heap," he developed a burning need for success, recognition and money -- and the security that came with it, he said. "It colors everything else, waters it all down."
Personal: He met his wife while doing postgraduate work in London. They married in 1974 before moving to Vermont. They have a 24-year-old daughter and live in Laguna Beach.
Education: A bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Concordia University in Montreal and a master's in science with an emphasis in business and economics from City University London. He eventually abandoned work on a PhD in psychology to pursue a business career.
On the path: From a post- college stint at aluminum manufacturer Alcan Inc. and forays into Internet-related consulting to a jaunt through the textile and animation industries and a short-lived term with a budget gourmet business, Novak never set out to land in the toy world. But he spent time at Mattel Inc. before landing senior positions at Coleco, which produced the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, and Galoob, which made "Star Wars" toys. "We have a privilege to talk about something we're passionate about, not oil output or the number of cars, but products that are real and alive," he said. "It's a high."
Toys vs. bunnies: There's no shortage of irate parents who search online for the company's toys and are accidentally treated instead to a display of the Playboy Playmates. The men's magazine even issued a legal challenge over the Playmates moniker, which was settled out of court. "We're not about to change our name," Novak said. "If we get the wrath of moms, then we'll just struggle through it."
Hurdles: Although Novak, 60, who is on the road four months each year, jokes that he deals with at least two crises a day, the first half of 2008 was especially rough: Worldwide sales dipped 33% to $29.7 million, and retail consolidation meant his Costa Mesa company had to fight larger toy behemoths for shelf space at fewer stores. Increasingly stringent safety regulations and inflation in China made toy production a hassle. And a spate of toy recalls that hurt other companies caused Playmates to tighten its vendor base even more. Playmates also has introduced fewer products, cut back on inventory and invested more in stable brands and publicity.
Favorite toy: None. "I never fall in love with product lines, because I have to be cold and ruthless in this business," Novak said -- and then laughed. Though he never had enough money as a child for toys, his daughter grew up with a huge collection.
Advice: Have determination and persistence. And "a little dose of passion if you're lucky enough," Novak said. "You have to love products to make good products."