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Innovation leads way at cutting-edge toy company

The Beverly Hills Teddy Bear Co. isn't just about stuffed animals, and it's definitely not in Beverly Hills.

It's a cutting-edge toy company with diversified lines of products, a designer of custom and licensed gifts for Fortune 100 companies, and a leading online retailer with seven niche e-commerce stores.

And it's based in East Aurora.

The company's in-line retail, direct-to-consumer and Internet divisions sell about 5 million toys a year, ranging in price from $1 to $200. And it counts Walmart, Toys R Us, Dollar Tree and other major retailers among its customers. Its corporate division contracts for the production of a million promotional figurines and plush merchandise annually for movie studios and big companies, like Disney, Sesame Street and FedEx.

"Our products are in a lot of stores, but we fly under the radar, so a lot of people don't know about us," said David Socha, CEO of the company.

Glow Crazy is the company's latest hot toy. The glow-in-the-dark drawing kit features a "magic light" wand that beams onto special paper from a distance, allowing doodling from 10 feet away. First introduced in Canada and New Zealand, it made its U.S. debut in the spring and several hundred thousand units have been purchased. It sells for $24.99 at retailers and $19.99 (excluding shipping costs) online and by phone.

"I've worked with toy and gift companies for 20-something years, and I've never seen a response like this," Socha said. "It's unbelieveable."

Glow Crazy's market performance has been so strong, the company is pouring more resources and talent into the line, Socha said.

"It's been a challenging year trying to keep the product on shelves, spending all of our money to make the product," he said. "We'll be reorganizing to meet the demand."

The Glow Crazy craze is driving the company's latest evolution. Its 18 years in business have been marked with a kind of evolving success -- from its Shrek figurines for Disney to its Talking Jesus dolls at Walmart and now Glow Crazy.

Socha said a marriage of creativity and innovation with manufacturing shrewdness has helped maintain the company's growth. Manufacturing is contracted out in China, which Socha said keeps the business competitive and viable, and products affordable for customers, with retail price points below $20.

The company once had 40 employees and 300 independent sale representatives. But when the dot-com bubble popped, it made adjustments with the change in the e-commerce market, turning into a type of virtual company, without so many employees.

With its current staff of 12, the company has to hire freelancers and contractors for its design, art and other work.

"It allows us to have fixed project costs and budgets," he said. "There are some projects that only make it to a certain point and we can pull the plug. If we had permanent employees, they might be out of a job. This allows us to pull from some of the best talent in the country and use people that are the very best at what they do."

Socha, a North Tonawanda native, got introduced to the toy business at a young age. His parents owned the Over the Rainbow toy store in the Town of Tonawanda for a few years. And Socha, at age 9, worked the cash register. When he moved to California for college, he held jobs at toy and gift shops.

He founded the Beverly Hills Teddy Bear Co. as a mail-order operation with his college roommate Josh Livingston, in Los Angeles.

"We were the West Coast version of the Vermont Teddy Bear Company," he said.

Not for very long, though. The business hit major snags with fulfilling orders and his partner bailed. But with "God's luck," Socha got free advertising from a radio station and he landed corporate contracts, he said. The company's big break came in 1995 when it was the lone manufacturer of figurines for the blockbuster film "Babe."

Today Beverly Hills Teddy Bear is the umbrella company for GlowCrazy.com and several other e-commerce divisions:

*StuffedAnimals.com, a site with 4,000 items, the largest selection of teddy bears and other plush toys.

*Puppet.com, which offers a wide variety of items -- from hand to theater puppets.

*Bibletoys.com, the company's popular faith-based toys line, sells the Bible-quoting Jesus doll and other Bible-inspired items.

*Customplush.com makes customized gifts and promotional items marketed to corporations.

*Plush.com sells toys and merchandise to retailers for advertising campaigns.

*RedWagons.com offers a wide selection of Radio Flyer wagons.

"It's all about doing what we do and being the best at it," Socha said.

He's also mindful about attracting and retaining dedicated workers and tapping into employees' strengths.

"With a small team, you have to find what they do best," he said.

Socha became a born-again Christian about 12 years ago. His resurgent faith gave birth to Bibletoys.com, which has a 90 percent penetration in the religious market, he said.

When Socha, 41, and his wife, Michele, also a Western New York native, began their family, they decided to move back to the area for the schools and to be closer to their relatives. In 2008, they settled in East Aurora to raise their three children, and now have another on the way.

The company relocated with Socha to the village. The Elm Street warehouse handles sales and order fulfillment for several of the company's divisions. The company still maintains a West Coast presence, with an administrative office in Valencia, Calif. It also has a distribution center in North Carolina.

Beverly Hills Teddy Bear Co. is currently running its first direct-response TV ad with Glow Crazy. Socha said the company plans to do more TV marketing and continue in the vein that has made it a success.

"We will be very selective to develop product lines that continue on our mission to educate children through fun as well as something cutting edge, such as Glow Crazy."

email: esapong@buffnews.com

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