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SAILING INTO TOYLAND <br> THREE EX-OFFICERS OF FISHER-PRICE TO SELL TOY LINE FOR $15 OR LESS

Like the nursery rhyme characters from whom it borrowed its name, the West Seneca-based Wink'n Blink'n & Nod toy company is about to set sail on a marvelous and unlikely adventure.

The fledgling infant and preschool toy company will debut its first six products at an international toy show in Hong Kong on Jan. 3, going up against the biggest and the best in the toy business a short five months after its founding.

"What we're doing sounds impossible, if not insane," said company president Dan Cooney, noting the typical 12- to 18-month lead time required to take a toy from concept to showroom.

"But we're not a typical start-up company. We're three guys with a combined 67 years experience in the industry who see a niche for high-quality toys with a low price point," he said.

Wink'n Blink'n & Nod is the brainchild of three former senior executives at Fisher-Price who each lost their jobs in the East Aurora company's recent string of management overhauls.

Cooney, a former senior vice president at Fisher-Price with earlier stints with Lionel Trains and the General Mills Toy Group, has teamed with Jim Cudney, former Fisher-Price vice president of marketing, and Bruce Oravec, the company's former general counsel, to create the new toy company.

After casual discussions about tapping their collective experience and going into business, the trio hit the ground running on July 1, sprinting from incorporation to meetings with some 450 toy designers and inventors to develop a product line.

"Our goal from the start has been to come up with high-quality toys with an attractive price point," Cooney explained. "We wanted toys with the look and feel of a Fisher-Price or Playskool toy and a price tag of $15 or less." While the three businessmen traveled around the country to look at potential designs, ultimately, their greatest resources were found in their own backyard -- a mother lode of former Fisher-Price staffers who have turned to free-lancing to ply their trade.

"We have a pool of 25 to 30 people right here with amazing talents," Cudney said. "We couldn't have accomplished what we have so far without their contributions."

Perhaps not so ironically, Wink'n Blink'n & Nod's headquarters is located on the second floor of the Ames store in Southgate Plaza, just down the hall from Fisher-Price's outplacement office.

"We just stand out in the hall and flag down former Fisher-Pricers," Cooney joked. "No, actually, we wait by the fence at Fisher-Price and see who they are letting go."

While the three can now laugh about their own involuntary exits from the world-renowned toy maker, they remember the advantages of working for a multimillion-dollar corporation. There are days when they wouldn't mind having a state-of-the-art facility with in-house product testing labs, play labs and a commercial-quality photography studio.

"There are real benefits to having all that, but we find just about everything we need here at Southgate," Cooney said. "There's a photo studio, a copy shop, and we've got Ames right downstairs for competitor samples."

But one thing none of the three misses is meetings.

"In that environment, 50 percent of your time is spent in meetings," Cudney said. "And every change in a product has to be approved by about 14 committees. Now that we run the company, we just decide the doll's hair should be blond, and it is."

Wink'n Blink'n & Nod's 1998 product line includes a total of six products, two of which are plush toys. The Cuddle Blanket Baby and Cuddle Blanket Teddy are soft-bodied toys attached to soft, satin-edged blankets that are easy for small fry to swaddle and carry around or take to their cribs. The baby and teddy figures also work as finger puppets.

The other four toys are hard-plastic interactive products. The Star Stacker rewards the child by playing musical notes when brightly colored stars are stacked or removed from the center post. When all the stars are stacked and the big yellow top is on, the stacker plays "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" as the stacking pieces twinkle along with the music.

The Rock N Roll Piano is a roly-poly, kid-friendly keyboard with workable keys for single musical notes, as well as a bar to press to activate three tinkly tunes.

Both the Star Stack and the Rock N Roll Piano are battery-operated.

The Laptop Numbers Desk is styled like grown-ups' laptops, but is actually a combination magnetic play surface and chalk board, complete with magnetic numbers and symbols, a pretend disk drive and a "mouse" that works as an eraser. The top lifts up to reveal storage for the accessories.

The company's Stack N Nest School is a primary-colored set of three people figures, a bus and a school building that can be stacked one on top of each or "nested" inside each other.

An observation that the happy-faced teacher and pupil figures bear a resemblance to Fisher-Price's recently redesigned Little People, elicited a smile from all three former Fisher-Price employees.

"Comparisons are inevitable," said Cudney, who is leading the company's marketing efforts. "Because of our backgrounds, and because so many of our designers have come through Fisher-Price, there's bound to be a few similarities."

While the bulk of the design work has been sourced locally, all six toys will be produced in Hong Kong. The local men traveled to the Far East this fall to select plants and set up schedules for production, which is slated to begin in April.

Only one more hurdle needs to be overcome, but its potentially the biggest of them all. The company now has to convince its target retailers, the mass market giants Wal-Mart, Kmart, Toy R Us and Kay-Bee Toys, to place orders.

"That's what we'll be doing in Hong Kong in the beginning of January, followed by shows in Dallas later in the month and in New York in February," Cooney said. "We'll know in a matter of weeks if this is going to work."

Despite the current uncertainty of not having a single order for its wares, Wink'n Blink'n & Nod has set a lofty goal of $5 million in sales for its first year. The three partners also see the need to turn a number of their free-lance designers into full-time employees.

"Sure, we're a little scared, but we're extremely excited," Cooney said. "This is the launch of this company and we think we've got incredible potential."

If the retail giants agree, Wink'n Blink'n & Nod brand toys will be on store shelves by late spring. But don't look for a glitzy advertising campaign to announce the arrival. In fact, there won't be any ads at all.

Wink'n Blink'n & Nod, like many small toy companies, is counting on the toys to advertise themselves. To that end, they will be packaged in "open front" boxes that will allow consumers to reach in and plunk the keys of the Rock N Roll Piano or run their fingers along the soft Cuddle Blanket Teddy.

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