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Fisher-Price, the East Aurora-based infant and preschool division of toy giant Mattel, saw its best year ever in 2000, helping its parent company to a stable fiscal year.

In reporting its fourth-quarter and full-year financial results Thursday, Mattel said profits from continuing operations grew 20 percent in the quarter, to $120.7 million, or 28 cents a share, from $100.5 million, or 24 cents in the prior year. In addition to strong sales of Fisher-Price products, the world's leading toymaker saw gains in its Barbie, American Girl and Hot Wheels lines.

"Across the board, everything did exceptionally well," said Neil Friedman, president of Fisher-Price Brands, headquartered in East Aurora.

He noted full-year sales increases of 20 percent, ranging up to 70 percent, depending on the category, with strong demand from everything from Little People to Power Wheels, to car seats and high chairs.

Friedman, who has been Fisher-Price's head toymaker since March 1999, said the lack of a must-have toy for the 2000 holiday season caused consumers to seek classic playthings which are the core of his company's offerings.

"There was nothing red hot in the toy arena, except scooters and Playstation 2, which you couldn't get," Friedman said. "So it became a very basic year, and whenever there's a basic year, Fisher-Price's core gets stronger. That, combined with an innovative product line, enabled us to have one of the better, if not the best year Fisher-Price has ever had."

The strong year is expected to reinforce stability at the East Aurora facility, which currently employs some 800 area residents. Over the past year, Mattel has taken steps company-wide to create a lean and mean work force, an effort that led to a hiring freeze and early retirement offers at Fisher-Price. "This performance shores up stability here," Friedman said.

Mattel beat analysts expectations with its fourth-quarter results, the company's first without the troubled Learning Co. unit. The company was forecast to earn 26 cents, the average estimate of analysts polled by First Call/Thomson Financial.

For the final quarter of the fiscal year, the El Segundo, Calif.-based company reported revenues of $1.58 billion, a sales increase of 4 percent from $1.52 billion recorded in the prior year's quarter.

Sales at the toymaker's girls division rose 11 percent to $551.6 million, led by a 3 percent increase in Barbie sales and the introduction of the wide-eyed Diva Starz dolls. Mattel's direct-marketing business, which includes Pleasant Co.'s American Girls dolls, rose 16 percent.

While sales of the Fisher-Price brand rose 31 percent, the infant and preschool division's sales declined 1 percent to $517.5 million as an electronic-chip shortage hurt sales of its interactive toys. Sales at the company's boys and entertainment unit were unchanged at $414 million.

Sales rose 4 percent in U.S. and 6 percent overseas, or 18 percent in local currencies.

Mattel said charges and a loss from discontinued operations of $34 million, or 8 cents a share, resulted in net income $71.1 million, or 17 cents a share.

In the fourth quarter of 2000, the company said charges and a loss from discontinued operations of $128.3 million, or 30 cents a share, resulted in a loss of $18.4 million, or 4 cents a share.

For the full year, Mattel reported a net loss of $86 million, or 21 cents per share, compared to a loss of $430 million, or $1.01 per share for fiscal 1999. Sales totaled $4.6 billion, compared to $4.5 billion for fiscal 1999.

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