In the film “Big,” Tom Hanks plays a kid in a grown-up’s body with a knack for figuring out the kind of toys kids really want to play with. In real life, Dan Pizac plays a grown-up who simply never stopped playing with toys.
The 24-year-old Pizac, owner of the Toy King store in Tustin, isn’t your stereotypical Orange County young entrepreneur. He’s not a budding real estate tycoon or a high-tech whiz. For Pizac, work is still a form of play.
“It’s all I ‘ve ever wanted to do,” Pizac said. “It’s still the kid in me, I guess. I’ve always loved toys. Working in a toy store is the perfect job. Everyone walks out of here with a happy face.”
Pizac has owned Toy King since he was 21 years old. He was the store manager at 18. He began in the business at 14. And he attributes his success to the fact that he is absolutely crazy about what he does for a living.
On Saturday, Pizac will convey that message in the opening address at a Small Business Administration conference for aspiring young entrepreneurs. The conference, one of 100 being held around the country, begins at 8 a.m. at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana.
The seminar will address the key aspects of running an independent business: planning, financing, marketing, taxes and insurance. Those things are important, Pizac acknowledged, but no more so than the things he has learned on the job in his 10 years in the toy business.
His advice to other would-be whiz kids?
“Don’t give up your dreams,” he said. “There are too many grumpy people who have forgotten they have a dream to go after. Grumpy people don’t believe in what they are doing.”
Like many children, Pizac anxiously awaited the arrival of Christmas every year. (“I hated getting clothes for presents, though.”) But unlike most kids, Pizac says, he decided when he was barely a teen-ager that one day he would own his own toy store.
Pizac became a toy fanatic at the age of 1, according to his mother, Helen, when he was given two small model cars that he clutched constantly, one in each hand. “Everyone thought he was so well behaved,” she said. “But the reason he’d never touch anything else is because he was afraid he’d lose one of those cars.”
His first toy store job was at Toy City in Santa Ana, where he worked in the warehouse when he was 14. From then on, Pizac was hooked. He worked after school and summers at area toy stores before becoming the manager of Toy King in 1982.
Pizac tried juggling college studies with running the toy store, but so far he has not found time to graduate. With the financial backing of his father, Pizac bought the store in 1985.
Pizac said he has learned most of what he knows about the business on the job. “Business books don’t tell you how to deal with angry customers,” he said.
Pizac takes the business of making children happy very seriously. So seriously, in fact, he refused to take a break to be interviewed, although he agreed to answer questions while polishing show-case windows and wrapping birthday presents as wide-eyed, giddy youngsters looked on.
When not working in his store, Pizac attends shows, spending hours testing out the latest toys. He has assembled a collection of merchandise ranging from exotic wind-ups from the Soviet Union to old favorites like the Groucho nose-and-glasses gag. Customers have been known to make special trips to Toy King from as far away as Ohio.
“This snake is one of my favorites,” said Pizac, wrapping around his neck an intricately painted wooden snake from Chile. “Over here is a replica of an 18th-Century dragonfly eye, and here we have Guatemalan trouble dolls,” which, according to Indian lore, “can solve your troubles while you’re sleeping,” Pizac said.
There are Koosh balls, rubbery sea-urchin-like things for juggling, and Murphy gorilla dolls that make jungle cries when squeezed. Then there is a bag of “300 Toys for $7.”
There are toys for grown-ups, too. “Look at these feather boas,” Pizac said. “A mom will come in, put one of these on, and her whole face transforms into this likeness of a wicked woman.”
On Sundays, when the store is closed, Pizac relaxes by taking a weekly trip to Disneyland. “It’s the only place--except for my store--where it’s clean and there’s no foul language and the people are nice,” he said. “People come to my store to be happy and I go to Disneyland to be happy.”
Although he has been approached about starting a chain of toy stores, Pizac said that is out of the question. People would not get the same kind of personal service, he said. Pizac prides himself on knowing the names of most of his customers, both kids and grown-ups.
“He’s just a big kid himself,” said Patti Scrivens, a customer who over the years has purchased many laser guns, Barbie dolls and stuffed bears for her 10 children and nine grandchildren. “He’s always up. I can’t think of a more appropriate person to sell toys.”
Pizac, who has lived with his parents in Tustin since 1972, said that most of his high school and college friends work in office jobs now. “I’ve got the funnest job, meeting lots of different people, making kids happy and playing with toys,” he said
A key part of any successful start-up is the staff. Pizac said he is unusually fortunate: His mom works in the store, and his father, Chester, chips in by balancing the books. “I know everything there is to know about the toys,” he said. “But my dad, he’s the bank.”
Chester, a retired aerospace industry consultant, financed the purchase of the store and helped Pizac get started.
Despite the pirate’s chest full of gems in the store window, Pizac said he is not rich and is not likely to become wealthy. But that’s not what’s important, he said.
“We make a happy living here,” Pizac said.
Other young entrepreneurs should be so lucky.