Steve Pasierb is the new CEO and President of the Toy Industry Association. Being the leader of the TIA is no easy task. We are an industry buffeted by change, government regulation, n.g.o.'s and the ever changing desires of our end users. After spending some time with Steve I found him to be more than up to the task. I think you will too. Here is my interview. And by the way, when you see him, come up and shake his hand. You will enjoy getting to know him. (Please note – I have bolded certain of Steve's sentences that I found particularly impactful).
Welcome to the toy industry. Steve, I have to ask you: You have had a successful career and could have happily stayed where you were. What is it about this industry and the TIA that attracted you?
When I spoke recently at the annual PlayCon conference in Arizona, I referred to myself as a blessed person for having been chosen to lead the TIA. I truly believe that. I’m blessed to be sitting here at this point in time, with this great cast of members and with TIA in such good condition. The attraction to this industry comes in a few ways, be it from my background in both marketing communications and public health, it’s my personal love of play and certainly it’s knowing the irrefutable fact that play is a essential component in healthy childhood development.
I’ve spent the past 23 years of my career focused on adolescent health and employing communications to educate families and advance their children’s health. The toy industry of today contains vital components of all that, be it building public understanding about product safely and proper use, or the incredible range of physical, emotional, developmental and social benefits that play brings to a child. Toys and play have to be an integral part of family life. I’m happy to champion that fact.
As a person with a foundation in the business world, I appreciate this is an industry that succeeds best when it brings maximum joy and excitement to people’s lives. We’re an industry where imagination, entertainment, innovation and design prevail. So yes, we have to be smart and savvy businesspeople — and this industry is chock full of bright, passionate people — but it’s wonderful that it all comes to life through the lens of a child, a sibling, a mom, a dad, a grandparent, aunt or uncle and all forms of today’s families. How cool is that!?
Culture, society, business and even the way we play are undergoing enormous and very rapid change. What special challenges do you think this represents for a new leader like yourself?
Change is a fact across society and in every business sector. The pace of change in the toy industry is quickening. Change brings insight far more often than insight brings change so let’s embrace that fact, learn and enjoy the ride. It will be different than it was, and different is okay. We'll have to work to continually find a fresh perspective. And, be willing to try new things and think differently.
One challenge at the top of my list is essentially what I call “rebranding” play for a new generation of parents and children. Millennial parents view their roles, their children, play and toys in a very different light than previous generations. We have to meet consumers where they are and then build an authentic, transparent dialogue about the role and value of play. The work that our TIA team is doing right now on the “Genius of Play” campaign and the learning we’re garnering from that experience could have transformative power when we take it national and especially when our members embrace it and bring it to life in their own communications and product promotions.
We have to be better storytellers and bring those stories to life. This in an extraordinary industry and we need a voice that both resonates and reverberates. As an industry we have to be loud, proud and all sing from the same pages in the same hymnal. It’s okay to be competitive and to seek that next percentage point of share, but let’s also grow share by growing the total category and that begins by making the category relevant in today’s society and our products aspirational in people’s lives.
We also have to tell the story of our industry's extraordinary depth of charity and community work. I see the Toy Industry Foundation growing into that force multiplier that on its own does great things like the $19 million in toys we delivered to underprivileged kids last year, but also one that amplifies the stories of our industry. Across companies and organizations of all sizes, I'd bet that total annual contribution is well above $100 million plus countless good works at the community level were people in our industry work, life and raise their own families.
We also have to welcome technology. We're seeing some fantastic adaptations of toys that integrate technology. It's also a fact that parents are buying tablets and devices for their children at younger ages. In this case, it's not a question of either tech or toys but rather one of proper balance. I’d argue that if your bottom line is to have a child be totally tech and focused relentlessly on better test scores while at the same time divorcing play and toys as being frivolous, we’ll end up with a generation 20-somethings who have great SATs but are lousy employees and members of society because they never learned to share their Lincoln Logs, collaborate with others by playing a board game or color outside the lines. Kids do need to compete in an increasingly challenging world. They also need to be kids and to laugh, to play, experiment and imagine. Those are invaluable human qualities that last a lifetime.
The toy industry was recently criticized by an NGO for having unreported, unsafe levels of chemicals in its toys. The TIA had its own testing done by an accredited lab which found that the report was false. In addition, out of 12 products cited, only four were toys. What can the toy industry do to blunt this kind of false, inflammatory reporting? How can we hold the people behind these reports to a standard of fair reporting?
It’s stunning to me that an industry that brings joy to people’s lives, laughter to children and is both so committed to safety and highly-regulated by federal agencies, testing regimens and laws would find itself in this situation. Like the great quote from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ”everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.” Unfortunately, toys have become an easy and emotional lever for some to advance their otherwise commendable agendas regarding chemicals in society.
We have to meet these inaccuracies, misperceptions and even bald face lies with fact. As you point out, all twenty products cited in New York tested fine when they were tested professionally. We also have to call out people who sit on the potential that a toy may have a safety concern until Christmastime when they can get press for themselves rather than acting immediately sharing their concerns with a given company to ensure actual safety. Safety is everyone's responsibility and should be no one's gotcha.
So overall, we have to be loud and proud about all industry does to advance safety and we have to remain committed to advancing safety by working cooperatively with agencies like the Consumer Product Safety Commission, regulatory bodies around the world and conscientious NGO's. Our members understand this and certainly as responsible business people they get that there are no margins in unsafe toys.
The toy industry has a number of constituencies: Children, parents and care givers, retailers and investors. A child wants to have fun; a parent wants the child to be safe, a retailer wants to sell its inventory and investors want to see profitability. From your perspective, how does an industry like ours best manage to honor all of these stakeholders?
We honor all of these stakeholders by appreciating the fact that each of their unique needs and perspectives are valuable and must be served. In asking your question you identified the ecosystem of our industry, and we know that when one part of any ecosystem fails or is neglected the other parts suffer. The reverse is equally true. When you look at those different, diverse constituencies, doing right by each also has a force multiplier effect that lifts the others.
I’d argue that the foundation is the child. We have to be perfect in that regard. Fail there and nothing else matters. Moving beyond that imperative, I’m reminded of an example a very cool and talented young person in our industry told me about our collective responsibilities. She said it’s like the Hard Rock Café motto, “love all, serve all.”
Beyond that, I certainly have responsibilities in my daily role. The key phrase I keep repeating is, "membership excellence." What are we doing to advance that from our member's perspective and at all levels of membership? How to we strengthen Toy Fair and better define the unique business role of the Fall Toy Preview that's so important for many members? Can we create more consumer facing opportunities? It's important to me that we nurture and maintain a strong internal culture at TIA. Our regulatory and legislative work is a real strength of our organization that benefits everyone. We have to be fiscally responsible as we invest our member's support into our programs. And, while we are the U.S. Association we need to take a serious global view and help our members open up new markets for their products. Those are just a few examples at the top of my list.
I always like to end with this question: Do you still play with toys? If so, can you tell us about it?
I absolutely still play with toys. The way I see it, the joy of play never ends. I’m essentially an overgrown child. Just ask my wife. In fact, when it was announced in the press that I was joining TIA, a friend posted on my Facebook page that, "Your workshop at home is the toy industry.”
My primary hobby is building and flying giant scale remote control sailplanes and the powered RC airplanes that tow them up into the sky. My models are exact one third scale replicas of an actual airplane down to the finest details including the pilot figures inside. I’m also a sponsored team pilot for JRAmericas the U.S. component of Japan Remote Control Company. The collaboration with JR is all about bringing new people, especially kids, into the hobby.
For me, it all began with a childhood love of things that fly and airplane plastic models. If I had the time and space I’d probably have a big train layout in my basement, some RC cars and a collection of tin robots and vintage toys. It breaks my heart that I no longer have all the Hot Wheels I collected as a kid, those models I built, and my big Lionel or small N-scale toy trains. I miss those days when the Sears catalog would arrive and dreaming of all the cool stuff I’d ask my parents for as Christmas presents.
Yeah, I love toys. I love being at TIA and the opportunity to serve all.