A Girlfriend to the End

Debra J. Hotaling is a frequent contributor to The Times

So this is how it feels to be Barbie,” someone murmurs as Mattel Chairman and CEO Jill Barad and her staff squeeze into a doll-sized conference room already staked out by two Ogilvy & Mather advertising reps. The air is pumped with corporate protocol. Of dotted i’s and crossed t’s.

“We narrowed down the field this morning,” begins an O&M; rep, “and just wanted to get an OK from you about the images you like.” She sweeps a toned arm toward a row of arty black-and-white photos: little girls running, laughing, playing soccer, staring wistfully at the camera.

A lot rides on these sunny little faces. After a dismal fourth quarter, the El Segundo-based company is anxious for a good showing in New York at the industry’s premier trade show. Everyone here hopes that the unveiling of a new “Be Anything” Barbie campaign there will launch the 111/2-inch doll into a profitable 1999 holiday season.


“We wanted to answer the question, what does ‘Be Anything’ mean?” continues the O&M; rep as Barad strolls around the room, taking in the images set before her. “I can dream. I

can care. I can be wise.”

“And this,” the other rep explains, “is the image we thought we’d use for the building,” referring to a five-story-high advertisement to go up across from Mattel’s New York offices at 6th and 21st.

The ad exec pauses, waiting for Barad to jump in with her blessing.

Instead, she speaks her mind. “But since the wall is vertical, you really need to have a photo that uses vertical space,” she begins. “Also, we need something surprising in each of these photos. Each of these girls should be special. Not perfect, but special.”

Barad begins flipping through a stack of castoffs. “Now that’s girl,” she exclaims, pulling out a shot of a preteen in braces, grinning broadly. “That’s real girl. That’s great.”

Suddenly, she turns to me: “Which one do you like?”

I choose a girl jumping rope, head thrown back, feet off the ground.

“It’s a great photograph,” she agrees. “She’s flying. Exuberant.”

Fast-forward to Day Four of the American International Toy Fair--a hectic four weeks after the Ogilvy & Mather presentation. The fatigue is starting to weigh on everyone’s faces. Even the buffed-out Tarzan with whom I briefly share an elevator on my way to Barad’s office looks as if he could use a martini. Barad, however, remains radiant. She ushers me into the office she uses two weeks out of the year and fetches us bottles of water.

Look out the window, she says brightly. There, covering the bulk of the building across the street, is the jump-rope girl. “See what we did together?” she says.



Barad unapologetically embodies the same gravity-defying power as her “Be Anything” kid. She’s a kind of you-go-girl business hero who gets stopped to sign autographs. Yet Wall Street watches her warily, wondering if she’s tough enough to get results. (After all, how tough can she be with all that hair?)

Starting out as a product manager in 1981, her 18-year climb through the Mattel ranks has been made largely on Barbie’s tiny shoulders. Under Barad’s direction, annual sales for that toy grew from a flagging $200 million to $1.9 billion, which, in doll terms, translates to about 10 Barbies per American girl. Since Barad became CEO in 1997, Mattel has gone on its own shopping spree, acquiring Tyco; Pleasant Co., creator of the American Girl historical doll line, and the Learning Co. The latter deal made Mattel the second-largest consumer software maker behind Microsoft.

But it’s not all fun and games in toy land. In April, Mattel announced that it would cut 3,000 jobs and close plants as it scrambles to regain momentum after last year’s setbacks. Since Barad took over, the stock price has fallen 10%. Investors are pressing the company to show significant returns off the acquisitions and to reduce its reliance on Barbie. And, after a decade of steadily climbing sales, the doll’s numbers are suddenly down--serious news since Barbie represents an estimated 40% to 50% of Mattel’s profits.

Although she’s the perfect celebrity--doesn’t go clubbing with the wrong crowd, doesn’t throw tantrums during photo shoots--Barbie has endured a rough few years of image-bashing by feminists and Barbie Liberation groups. In a word, she’s gone flat. The reasons for that range from a market glut of Holiday ’97 Barbies to a growing and perhaps irreversible sophistication among young consumers. Once the stronghold of Barbie fandom, many older girls now pooh-pooh the doll as the plaything of their 3-year-old sisters. They spend their allowances on Spice Girls CDs, bell bottoms and “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” computer games.

There have already been shakeups in upper management. Earlier this year, Bruce Stein, Barad’s second-in-command, resigned, and the president of Mattel’s Fisher-Price line exited. Through a spokesperson, Stein will say only that although he and Barad differed on strategy, their work relationship remained positive. One industry observer suggests that Stein’s more traditional toy background didn’t mesh with the Barad mission.

Clearly she intends to reinvent the company as a broad-based entertainment provider. (Not coincidentally, she serves on the boards of Microsoft and Pixar Animation Studios.) At the February Toy Fair, Mattel showed off an example of what it can do in partnership with such companies as Intel. They came up with a cool new microscope that magnifies and displays objects on a PC monitor. Mattel may soon be selling such inventions via a $50-million e-commerce venture recently announced over the protests of some retailers.

“The fundamentals of the toy business are changing dramatically,” says David Leibowitz, a managing director at Burnham Securities. “And the speed with which this change is coming can hit every business by surprise.”

Mattel’s situation is even more tenuous. With retailer decisions already made for the 1999 holiday season, it must wait till 2000 to see the impact of the $3-billion Learning Co. buy. “Further, Jill has had to come to grips with some issues that were not of her own making,” Leibowitz continues. “The next 24 months are going to be telling.”


This is a moment she’s been practicing for all her life. The younger of two sisters, Barad was born in 1951 in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her father, Larry Elikann, is a TV director (“Falcon Crest,” “Knots Landing”), her mother, Corky, a full-time mom.

“Jill was always different from the rest of us,” recalls childhood friend Carin Hackman Greenberg. “When we were going to the East Village for concerts, she was at the Copa. When we were wearing bell-bottom jeans, she was wearing evening gowns.”

Barad groans at the memory. “I had these little matching sets of hats and purses in yellow patent leather,” she says. “I wore false eyelashes and white lipstick, and I remember thinking how attractive it was--my Woolworth lipstick for 39 cents.”

Though long past the white lipstick, Barad still presents herself in a kind of well-organized way--deftly applied lip liner, quiet nail color, well-cut suits in warm colors--that makes women think that, with enough hard work, they too could look like her.

“We were all what you would call upper-middle-class,” says Greenberg of their circle of friends. “But Jill came from a home that was a bit more cultured, a little more moneyed. And her parents had incredible expectations of her. They truly believed she would be what she is now. While our parents were saying, ‘Become a teacher,’ Jill’s parents were saying, ‘The world is yours. You can be anything.’ ”

Barad’s sister, Jo-Anne Elikann, says she and Jill were not the ordinary products of the counterculture decade. “When we were kids, the two of us must have memorized every show tune from the 1960s,” says Elikann. “If you would happen to mention a play called ‘Flora, the Red Menace’ that no one else had heard of, Jill and I could sing you all the songs. It’s not a skill much in demand.”

Barad was developing other skills, though, as a kid-focused entrepreneur. No one else in the neighborhood got to babysit when they were 10, says Elikann, but children begged parents to invite Jill over.

At Queens College, Barad majored in English and psychology and had a work-study job at Nassau County hospital. She had pictured herself as a counselor for critically ill patients until she was assigned to hold a woman’s hand during a surgical procedure. “They gave her a little sedation,” Barad recalls, “and I passed out not even two seconds later. They ended up carrying me out in my greens.”

After college, Barad got into the movie business very briefly, appearing in the 1974 Dino De Laurentiis film “Crazy Joe.” “I’m standing in Columbus Circle wearing a sequined gown slit to my knee and big brunette hair,” she recalls. “Later, I’m watching myself on TV being interviewed and I’m thinking, ‘I hate this. They’re only talking to me because I’m wearing this dress.’ That was the most stupid thing I ever did.”

She finally went to work training department store cosmeticians for Coty, motivating them with $5 bills stuffed inside balloons--make a sale, break a balloon.

After a Coty convention in Las Vegas, she flew out to Los Angeles to meet her parents at the Beverly Hills Hotel as her dad finished up a film project. Barad picked out her future husband, film producer Thomas Barad, while sipping drinks with a girlfriend in the Polo Lounge.

“I look over and here’s this really nice looking guy with his mom and dad,” recalls Barad. “I said to my friend, ‘See that guy over there? I’m going to marry him and move to L.A.’ ”

In 1978, she did. After 14 months at home with the first of two sons, Alexander, she hired on with Mattel’s novelty-toy division. On her way up, Barad became pregnant with Justin. “I didn’t tell anyone until I was four months pregnant,” she says. “I had the same fears every woman has. I was on a good career path and I didn’t know how it was going to affect my job. But it didn’t matter. I wanted another child more than anything. When I was in my sixth month, I got promoted. That’s when I got Barbie.”

Taking charge of Barbie meant doing a complete makeover on the doll, offering it in a seemingly endless stream of career moves (doctor, teacher, news reporter, firefighter, even presidential candidate). Nurturing the clones brought long hours and lots of travel. When her second son was born, Barad planned to continue breast-feeding when she returned to work after maternity leave--a well-laid plan derailed by a blizzard during Toy Fair.

“I was so organized,” she says. “Then the biggest snowstorm in New York’s history hits. And I can’t get out of there. That was probably the scariest time in my life. I couldn’t get home and I couldn’t breast-feed.”

When Barad isn’t working, she’s with her family in West Los Angeles. Period. Saturday mornings are for her, she says, waving a manicured hand, with Saturday afternoons devoted to the kids and Saturday night to Tom. On Sunday, Barad makes breakfast for everyone, then does Mattel work, cranking out the stacks of notes, suggestions and questions that staffers have come to expect on Monday mornings. After dinner together, everyone piles onto the bed to watch a movie.

“Not a very exciting life,” she shrugs.


After being signed in (twice), tagged and personally vouched for, I am finally escorted to a large, windowless conference room where this morning’s pre-production meeting is being held. A woman passes me in the hall holding an object wrapped tenderly in a napkin. As I get closer, I see that it’s a doll, headless and naked.

The appointed room is heavy with pregnant employees, members of Mattel toy design teams who await their turn to show Jill & Co. the doll prototypes on which they’ve been working. Up first: Olympic Swimmer Barbie.

Everyone gathers around a makeshift lap pool to watch the action. “You’d better move back,” warns one of the designers to the crowd of Mattel execs. “She splashes.”

He gently releases the doll into the water.”Go, Barbie, go!” someone cheers as the Divine Miss B purposefully Australian-crawls across the pool. They all watch intensely, as if reading tea leaves on the bottom of the pool.

“What about hair?” Barad asks the assembly, as the designer winds up Barbie’s little arms and places her back in for another lap.

It’s being worked on, she’s told. Maybe a swim cap. “Kids aren’t going to love a cap,” decides Barad. Nothing more is said about it.

“Have we done any focus groups?” she wants to know. “Let’s get some kids and see how we do. But let’s keep working. I don’t want this to be a one-trick pony.”

On another day, I ask Barad about this meeting and her reputation among colleagues for hands-on management, what critics call micromanagement. Like Disney’s Michael Eisner, she is known for hovering over the tiniest details.

“To some degree I am that way with Barbie because I grew up here with her,” she says. “But Barbie is where I feel a huge responsibility to give back to girls. We’re not single-dimensional. We’re nurturing, smart, creative, inquisitive. And I want Barbie to express that.

“But I have gotten better,” she adds. “I’ll tell you that. I have gotten better.”

Barad is also accused of being all flair and no substance, of overselling Mattel with her charm. Yet fans say her charisma and energy engender hard work. And, as I discovered when I saw the jump-rope girl plastered sky-high during Toy Fair, Barad knows how to make people feel important.

“I’m always being asked to stay after my own meetings to look at some new campaign or product,” says Glenn Bozarth, Mattel’s senior vice president of corporate communications. “I’ll tell her, ‘I don’t know anything about that.’ But she doesn’t care. She wants to know what people think.”

Barad knows how to take a big step back and listen, says Geraldine Laybourne, CEO of Oxygen Media and former head of Nickelodeon. “We were very ambivalent about getting into toys,” she recalls. “People would come in, take the name Nickelodeon, slap it on a lunch box and call it merchandising. Jill came in with a design team, really trying to find out what made us tick. What she did was so smart. She created a whole new category of art activity toys--Gak and Floam and Smud--that were so much getting the humor and playfulness of Nickelodeon. I was wowed that somebody would really do me the honor of understanding our brand so deeply.”

She and Barad have stayed in touch. “She’s a business friend, which is something very rare for women and very important,” Laybourne says. “At key times in my career, Jill will dip in with a single note that says something like, ‘OK, honey, try this.’ ”

To Barad, a stranger is simply a girlfriend she hasn’t met yet. Pleasant Rowland, the salt-of-the-earth president and CEO of Middleton, Wis.-based Pleasant Co., was prepared to dislike Barad and everything her empire stood for. But when the two women first met, they talked for nine hours. Straight. “Before the day was done, we were finishing each other’s sentences,” Rowland later told employees.

After childhood friend Greenberg lost her mother at age 16, she says she leaned on Barad. “I couldn’t bear waking up in the morning without my mother being in the house,” she says. “So Jill would come over every morning after my sister left for work so I wouldn’t have to wake up alone. She did this for months.”

Over the past year, Barad has declined most interviews, weary--and wary--it seems, of the inevitable moment when the reporter asks what it’s like to be a girl running a $6-billion company. A girl with an English degree, not an MBA. A girl who, at 48, refuses to surrender to a sensible haircut. Barad is the only female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, earning $4.8 million a year. (Marion Sandler shares the top job at Golden West Financial.)

Fortune magazine ranked her sixth last year on its 50 Most Powerful Women in American Business list, but any mention of the “P”-word provokes her. “I don’t need to be identified as being powerful,” says Barad, leaning off the edge of her office sofa. “I don’t need to be on a list.

“All I know is that I’ve got a wonderful opportunity to see the world. I’m on Bill Gates’ board, listening to where we’re going to be headed 10 years from now. I get to see Steve Jobs doing his visionary stuff. And I get to spend time with [Intel Chairman] Andy Grove and hear his take on the world. I believe this is an area that’s completely open to women in a way that hasn’t been available for some time.”

Laybourne suggests that the Fortune list--including its very existence--points out a basic gender gap in business. Women, she observes, are less driven to become No. 1 at any costs. “Men focus on getting to the finish line,” she says. “For women, it’s much more about the process. How do I build an organization that will last? How do we serve our employees, customers and partners? It’s much less about climbing the ladder to be the No. 1 woman in a Fortune 500 company. Women are used to juggling their lives--taking care of kids, husbands, jobs, communities. It’s lateral thinking. And that’s how Jill works.”


The boys will be out of the house soon. Barad and her husband have talked about adopting a baby girl. He wants to adopt two. “I really believe, if we have the wherewithal, there shouldn’t be a child that doesn’t have a home,” Barad says.

She admits she cannot relax. “I’m not a good down-time person,” she says. “I don’t know how to stop. And, again, it’s more my whole life, not just work.

“I am learning how to fly-fish,” she adds quickly. “It’s not like fishing, where you hold the rod and just stand there. Fly-fishing is strategic. Nonstop. And it doesn’t hurt the fish.”

Here’s Barad’s idea of a kick-back vacation: “I do laundry,” she says, laughing. “Maybe 25 loads a day. I love getting stains out of clothes. I’m very creative with bleach.”

When I relate this scenario to Laybourne, she doesn’t sound surprised. “I love to do laundry too. I love to do dishes. And it’s true, I only do laundry and dishes on vacation. It’s the new executive woman.”

Meanwhile, Mattel’s “Be Anything” campaign is in full swing. One notable addition to this year’s holiday lineup: Working Woman Barbie.

“At first we called her CEO Barbie, but not a single girl knew what a CEO was,” Barad explains. “Then we were going to call her President Barbie, but everyone thought that meant president of the United States. Then it was Boss Barbie, but girls said the name was rude because bosses can be mean. So we struck a deal with Working Woman magazine, and we think it’s really the most kid-friendly title.”

Among the CEO doll’s tiny possessions are a laptop computer, cell phone and commuter coffee cup. She talks too. “Teamwork is great!” “Earning money is fun!” “Time for my date!”

Her hair is straight and long. And underneath her well-cut gray suit is a little red party dress. Because you never know where you might end up.