Isaac Larian arrived in the U.S. as a teenager with $750 in his pocket, then spent a decade working in a restaurant before making his fortune in the toy business. But his biggest obstacle may have been an 11.5-inch tall plastic doll with blonde hair.
“Everyone said, ‘No one has been able to challenge Barbie. It won’t work,’” said Larian, 64, the Iranian-born founder and chief executive officer of MGA Entertainment, creator of Barbie rival Bratz dolls.
Well, it worked well enough to help make MGA one of the world’s largest toy companies. Along with Bratz, the firm’s offerings include Little Tikes and L.O.L Surprise!, this year’s top-of-the-wish-list item. Larian’s 82 percent stake in the Van Nuys, California-based company puts his net worth at about $2.5 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
The toy industry — and much of Larian’s fortune — rely on the holiday season. Half of all sales take place in the last three months of the year and about a third occur in the five weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, according to Juli Lennett, an analyst at NPD Group. MGA had seven of 10 best-selling toys during October, according to NPD.
“What is Christmas without having a toy under the tree?" Larian said.
As with Bratz , Larian said he had a tough time convincing retailers about L.O.L Surprise! -- a glittery pink case containing dozens of individually wrapped mystery dolls.
“They said, ‘Who will buy a toy where you can’t see what you’re getting?”’ Larian said. “We kept saying that’s the whole point, but they didn’t get it.”
It has become this year’s best-selling toy, according to NPD, and is at the top of Amazon.com Inc.’s list of top-100 toys, which also includes Spin Master Corp.’s PAW Patrol Ultimate Rescue Fire Truck and Air Hogs Supernova, and Lego Group’s Harry Potter Hogwarts Great Hall Building Kit and Star Wars TM Kessel Run Millennium Falcon.
There are billionaires behind those toys, too. Ronnen Harary’s stake in Toronto-based Spin Master gives him a net worth of about $1.2 billion, while Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen and his sons own a collective 75 percent of Lego. Kristiansen is worth about $4.6 billion, making him Denmark’s third-richest person, according to the Bloomberg index.
The liquidation of Toys “R” Us Inc. earlier this year left a huge hole -- about $11 billion globally -- but it’s being filled by major players like Target Corp., Amazon and Walmart Inc., which are expanding offerings and spending more on marketing. It also has prompted retailers such as Party City to enter the market.
Larian offered to save Toys “R” Us from liquidation in April with a $900 million bid for stores in the US and Canada, which the retailer rejected. He was later outbid in an attempt to buy the company’s distribution centers.
Even with the shake-out, NPD’s Lennett predicts holiday toy purchases will be robust. “This is the time for toys and it’s going to be a fun season to watch," she said.