by Joan Birsch
On Feb. 21, Ocean Reef Member Tom Murdough was inducted into the prestigious Toy Industry Hall of Fame
When my sons were 2 and 4 they shared (not always amicably) their first car. It was a bright red and yellow foot to floor Cozy Coupe designed and manufactured by Little Tikes, a company founded by Tom Murdough. My children and grandchildren (one shown here), like many of yours, contributed to Cozy Coupe’s reputation as “Best- Selling Car in America.”
Just a week before his induction into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame, I interviewed Tom Murdough. We met at the beautiful house he and his wife Joy built at Ocean Reef over two decades ago. Secretly I suspected he might be a “big boss type”– cool, abrupt and somewhat inaccessible.
Instead I found Tom Murdough open, interesting, self-effacing. The epitome of the word “genial.” He is a fit 81-year-old, who has almost fully recovered from the stroke he suffered two years ago. The “almost” is the loss of some of the athleticism he enjoyed most of his life. He was a high school tennis star in his hometown of Evanston, Illinois; on the Lacrosse team at U of Virginia; a Marine Corp officer during the Vietnam War; and a formidable golfer at OR’s Card Sound Club.
Absolutely intact is Tom’s keen and inventive mind and the sharp entrepreneurial acumen that resulted in three enormously successful toy companies – Little Tikes (1969); Step2 (1991); Simplay3 (2016). Note: When the first two companies were sold, not only Tom but also his loyal workforce profited. Simplay3, which manufactures not only toys but a line of “grownup” items like mailboxes and wheelbarrows, is going strong.
Tom was initially lured into producing inventive toys, not by some childhood love of a favorite plastic fire engine, but by an unconventional manufacturing process known as Rotational Molding. His first exposure to this process was at Wonder Products, where he was in charge of the manufacture of molded plastic bed pans for hospitals.
When Tom left Wonder to go on his own, he took the bed pan business with him. But, being something of a risk taker, he soon expanded the business to include products for preschoolers, designed to make play more interesting and more fun.
He called the new company Little Tikes, which quickly became a household name – at least in households with young children. The breakthrough product was a molded plastic toy box, shaped like a frog. This was quickly followed by a bestselling covered turtle sand box.
With Little Tikes and the two companies (Step 2 and Simplay3) that followed, Tom Murdough subscribed to his own rigid set of rules.
1. Commitment to quality and safety, which meant using the Rotational Molding, rather than other less expensive processes.
2. Concern for the welfare of his employees. Tom Murdough earned their loyalty with fair wages (none of his companies were ever unionized), a bonus system, childcare centers, and a personal relationship with many of his hundreds of workers.
3. Made in America by American workers. This ironclad rule prevailed in each of Tom’s companies. Considering the fact that over 90% of the toys sold in this country are made abroad (primarily in China), it is easy to understand that abiding by this rule makes Tom Murdough something of a maverick in the Toy Industry.
One Step Ahead…that is not the name of a new Tom Murdough company, but rather one of the things that have made him successful.
Example: when Tom first got into the business, toy companies concentrated on Christmas sales and then took a hiatus. Not Tom. He developed a spring and summer line of outdoor products that included a slide, pool, picnic table and play house.
And when his most important sales outlet Toys“R”Us went out of business, Tom discovered the internet. Simplay3 does a big business on Amazon.
The new Simplay3 catalogue features wonderful outdoor toys for kids. Then turn the catalogue over and you find Simplay3 is for Grown Ups too! Here are the mailboxes, step ladders, garden wheelbarrows. All of them well-designed and made of safe and sturdy plastic, the result of Rotational Molding.
Made in America
Ask Tom Murdough to list what in his life is most important and I suspect this would be his answer – Joy, my wife of 53 years. My four sons. My religion. My community of Hudson, Ohio. My employees. My work. And, of course, America.
This is a man whose character embodies the same durable high quality as the products he manufacturers. He is truly an American Entrepreneur.