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Mattel first-quarter profits soar, but Fisher-Price sales fall

Mattel Inc. had a monster first quarter, with profits more than quadrupling because of strong sales of dolls like Monster High, Disney Princess and American Girl.

But the toy maker’s Fisher-Price business, which is centered in East Aurora, continued to struggle, with sales dropping by 7 percent as strong growth in its Fisher-Price Friends products offset a decline in revenues from its core brands.

Mattel also said Wednesday that David Allmark has left his post as Fisher-Price’s executive vice president to return to Great Britain to run Mattel’s HIT Entertainment business. Allmark, who had held the top job at Fisher-Price since February 2011, is being replaced by Geoff Walker, who was Mattel’s senior vice president and co-general manager in Europe.

Overall, Mattel’s profits topped analyst expectations, and its shares rose 80 cents, or 1.86 percent, to $43.78 on Wednesday after briefly hitting its highest level in 15 years.

But Fisher-Price was a notable laggard during the first quarter.

“Fisher-Price’s performance was below our expectations in the quarter,” said Bryan G. Stockton, Mattel’s chairman and chief executive officer, during a conference call Wednesday.

Mattel is in the midst of a major revamp of its Fisher-Price product line, de-emphasizing some products, such as View Master and a basketball goal that can be adjusted in height as a child grows, while launching new toys to extend its Launch & Learn product line and digital extensions for its Little People and Imaginext lines.

At the same time, Mattel is repackaging its Fisher-Price products – a process that is only about 20 percent complete but should be mostly wrapped up by fall, Stockton said.

“Fisher-Price is a brand where we see tremendous opportunity, particularly internationally,” he said.

“We’ve been executing a twofold strategy for growth, reinvigorating core Fisher-Price and expanding Fisher-Price Friends.”

Fisher-Price sales dropped to $287 million during the quarter from $310 million a year ago, even with a 21 percent jump in sales from its Fisher-Price Friends line of toys, including a newly launched line of Thomas the Tank Engine wood toys.

“Though our first-quarter performance was below our expectations, we believe Fisher-Price will grow globally in 2013,” Walker said in a statement.

“A few factors bode well for future success, such as increases coming from properties we own, like Little People and Thomas & Friends, as well as a strong pipeline of new brands and products coming on market through the year.”

Fisher-Price was hurt by too much inventory at some stores during the quarter, Stockton said. “We were slow to address pockets of inventory in select markets,” he said.

In addition, the decision to de-emphasize some of its less profitable brands and products, like View Master and the adjustable basketball hoop, hurt Fisher-Price’s results, he said.

“What we’re trying to do, really, is focus behind things like baby gear and infant and preschool toys like Imaginext and Little People,” Stockton said. “Really focus on what’s core for the brand.”

Walker has worked at Mattel for 17 years, holding brand management positions within Mattel’s wheels, entertainment and games divisions. Before taking his most recent post in Europe, Walker, who has an MBA from Vanderbilt University, led Mattel’s efforts to reposition its Hot Wheels brand.

Even Barbie struggled during the first quarter. Barbie sales slipped 2 percent, hurt by the stronger dollar. It’s the third straight quarter of domestic revenue decline for the famous 54-year-old fashion doll.

But other parts of Mattel’s fashion doll product line did much better. The fashion doll category has been one of the toy industry’s strongest, helped by new entrants such as Monster High – a doll line based on the offspring of famous monsters – which has grown to the No. 2 doll category in just three years of existence, according to Mattel.

Barbie is still the No. 1 doll in the sector, but Mattel’s results show that other doll brands are gaining steam. Mattel declined to give specific sales figures but said Monster High results drove its total girls brand category up 56 percent worldwide. American Girl sales rose 32 percent.

“As we look at Barbie, it’s a very competitive category,” Stockton said. “The total fashion doll category is growing, and Barbie is holding her own.”

The first quarter is the smallest for toy makers, accounting for just 17 percent of annual sales, with ad spending at a minimum after the busy holiday quarter. The latest earnings increase was helped by comparison with a year-ago period that included a big charge. “We continue to see the first quarter as our preseason, and we remain focused on a strong 2013 and delivering in the all-important holiday season,” Stockton said.

BMO Capital Markets analyst Gerrick Johnson noted that “hotter” toy brands like Monster High drove results, while basics like Barbie, Hot Wheels and Fisher-Price all had slightly lower sales.