From the Corner Office: Neil Friedman

UPDATED: June 29, 2009
PUBLISHED: June 29, 2009

We’ve all seen the Tom Hanks movie Big, right?
A teenage boy magically wakes up as an adult,
lands a job at a toy company and spends his
days playing with prototypes. As president
of the Mattel Brands division at Mattel Inc.,
Neil Friedman has his share of Big moments,
when his office is strewn with toys and he’s
fiddling with new products around the clock.
Of course, life isn’t all play and no work for
this industry veteran, but he admits the job
keeps him a kid at heart.

“It’s just one of those industries that, if you really like
it, it’s really hard to go anywhere else because it’s fun, it
really keeps you young at heart and it brings smiles
to the faces of kids,” Friedman says.

Given his 37-year track record in the
industry, it’s no wonder he hasn’t strayed. Friedman is
credited with pioneering the fusion of technology and
toys, revitalizing the Barbie brand and ushering in the
“Elmo effect”—and that’s just during his 12-year run
with Mattel. He has also been named a Toy Industry
Hall of Famer and an International Licensing Industry
Merchandisers Association’s Hall of Famer, among
other awards.

Now, Friedman, who turns 62 in August, presides over
all Mattel, Fisher-Price and Radica brands—including
such hits as Hot Wheels and Little People—in addition
to toys by entertainment properties such as Disney/
Pixar’s Cars, Dora the Explorer and Sesame Street.

And, to think, this career was set in motion by a
help-wanted ad. That’s how the Rider University alum
landed a job at Pennsylvania toy chain Lionel Leisure/
Kiddie City, where he climbed his way up to become
executive vice president and COO over the course of
a decade. Next, he worked for such heavy hitters as
Hasbro, Gerber and MCA/Universal before starting at
Tyco Preschool in 1995.

At the time, Tyco Preschool
had a new toy in the works for the
1996 holiday season: Tickle Me
Elmo. “When you played with it
the first time, it brought a smile
to everyone’s faces,” Friedman
remembers. “It was a magical surprise.”

The toy went on to become a huge phenomenon
that helped drive traffic to toy aisles early in the
holiday season, a force now called the “Elmo effect.”
Friedman recalls visiting stores after Elmo’s introduction
and seeing women picking up stuffed animals and
“squeezing them to see what they would do,” he says. “It became
very obvious that, by bringing these toys to life, we really hit a nerve
for moms and kids. Because it became alive to them; what’s technology
to us is magic to a child. And that was really what set that
[trend of combining technology and toys] off.”

Tyco Toys Inc. merged with Mattel in 1997, and they followed
the success of Tickle Me Elmo with more advanced versions, such
as T.M.X. Elmo in 2006 and Elmo Live in 2008. As president of
Fisher-Price Brands from 1999–2005, Friedman took the trend a
step further by creating technologically enhanced toys that not only
entertain but educate, too, and have become a large part of Fisher-
Price’s core business.

Another coup for Friedman was revitalizing the floundering
Barbie brand in 2006. The iconic doll—which turned 50 in 2009—
“had been suffering from a lack of focus, a lack of excitement, and
competition,” he remembers. “I put one of my top marketeers on
the business who is really good on structure, focus, getting back to
the basics, instilling a business plan into the business, and he made
incredible strides in structuring the business.”

always work together as a team. And
what we say we’re going to do, we do.”

Then Friedman assembled a team
of his top marketeers and creatives.
“And when you take your best
people who have a sense of style
and a sense of relevance, on top
of your brand, it really makes a
huge difference,” he says. In 2006,
Barbie saw its first year of growth
in six years.

Teamwork is a key component
of Friedman’s success at Mattel, he
says—in fact, it’s one of his “rules
of the road.”

“We always treat each other like
we want to be treated. We’re always
considerate of other people’s time.
We always work together as a team. And what we say we’re going
to do, we do,” Friedman says. As coach of his team, he leads his
players with a common goal: “to be the best at what we do and to
execute as a team.” One of their priorities is staying on top of trends
to keep their brands fresh.

“Our job is to be ahead of the curve, doing things that not necessarily
nobody’s done before, but doing things better than anybody
else has been doing,” Friedman says. “Because a child is the most
fickle customer. They have a very short attention span. So you need
to be able to do it better, faster and on trend more than anybody
else to stay in the lead.”

He does so by choosing talented
team members and emphasizing
the fact that “no idea is a bad
idea,” Friedman says. “If you have
an idea, it may not be appropriate
for now, but it may spark somebody
else’s imagination for something
now or be something that
you store for a later date. Nobody
is ever chastised for an idea, no
matter how silly it may sound.”

Recognizing a winning toy
may be the toughest part of the
job—“There’s no real science to
picking a great product”—but there
are two ways to do it, Friedman says:
“One, if you find a product that makes everybody smile, especially
children, generally that toy is a winner. It’s a gut feeling.”

But, when he has his doubts, Friedman relies on his staff. “If
someone who’s working on that product feels strongly about it,
you have to let them go forward with it,” he says. “And, if they’re
right, it’s great for them and you learn something. If they’re wrong,
then they learn something. The way most people learn is through
making mistakes.”

No matter how much is on the line, Friedman always fosters a
fun work environment. “Because, if [employees] enjoy getting up in
the morning and coming to work, they’re going to stay. If you get
up in the morning and you don’t enjoy coming to work, then
it’s probably time to find another job. I’ve always lived my
life that way.”

As a father of three adult children and a stepfather
to two young ones, Friedman draws inspiration simply
by “watching children play, watching what they play
with, how long they play with it, what they like, what
they see their older siblings play with that they want
but can’t have. But there are things that happen all
around you that you can see, and it’ll spark an idea. It
can be anything or it can come from anyone.”

In a way, Friedman owes his success to his target
audience—children—so it’s only natural that he fi nds
ways to repay them. He serves on the boards of several
child-related charities, including Save the Children
and its Survive to Five Council, the executive advisory
board of the Children Affected by AIDS Foundation,
and the Northside Center for Child Development in
New York City.

“I have always found that there are ways to give my
time or money or both to help children through,” he
says. “Giving back when you do well is important. It
makes you more complete.”

Chelsea Greenwood has been contributing to print and online publications as an editor and writer for more than 10 years. A University of Florida graduate, she is the editor of a lifestyle magazine in South Florida.