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Local Fisher Price boss attracted by joy of toy business

Geoff Walker, the new executive vice president of the Fisher-Price Global Brands Team in East Aurora, is an Amherst native. A graduate of the University of Southern California and Vanderbilt University, Walker most recently lived in the United Kingdom, overseeing Mattel’s European business as senior vice president and general manager. Today, the father of two lives in Orchard Park and is the company’s most senior executive in East Aurora.

Q: How is what you’re doing here different from what you were doing in the U.K.?

A: Very different. Over there it was about selling the brands into retail and driving the business. This is really about product development, driving the brand, creating the brand, working with product development teams here to create the best product possible. It’s about working with the brand team here to make sure we are building a strong brand and that we know how to execute it in the digital world and on TV.

Q: People think of a cartoon or TV show as a product in itself, but in some ways is a cartoon a commercial for branded merchandise?

A: We have our ‘Friends’ business in New York City which creates toys based on different entertainment properties from Dora the Explorer to Thomas and Friends. We work with those entertainment companies to create the shows and highlight certain features – so if there’s a Gymnastics Dora, making sure there’s a show based on that and that there’s some relative linkage.

We do create content around some of our products to create more of a link to a digital mom. The Gen Y mom is that first generation of moms that has grown up with computers and so how they find out about products and brands is more in the digital world versus watching a TV commercial.

Q: What is Fisher-Price doing in the digital world?

A: We have a number of learning apps for kids. As parents move on to the generation 5 iPhone, the generation 1 goes to their kids as almost a toy nowadays. We have Kid-Tough cases now that allow you to insert your iPhone into it. The pass-back and pass-down factor on iPads and iPods is picking up steam as the next generations come out. Those older generation devices are going to the kids, and they’re getting younger and younger all the time.

Q: What are the hot sellers?

A: Little People always does well. The Little People bus. We just launched Thomas wood-based track sets this spring and they’re doing incredibly well. The Laugh & Learn Crawl Around Car is going to be one of our big items this fall. Our Corvette from Power Wheels we’re very excited about because we’re launching it in conjunction with the real car launching.

Q: What suits you personally for the toy industry?

A: I joined the toy industry because I wanted to have fun. And I love watching both adults’ and kids’ faces light up when you tell them what you do. And there’s nothing better. You tell anyone where you’re working and they all light up, they all have a story about what those products meant to them and that’s cool. Not a lot of businesses and brands give you that.

Q: How does a toy go from an idea to a product?

A: It starts with consumer insights and always saying, “Where do we find gaps in the market, developmental needs or what moms are looking for?” and we work with a design team to create different concepts. And then we test them. We have a psychologist and we have the play lab here locally. We put them in front of kids and moms and we get their feedback as to what works, what doesn’t. It’s always a constant refinement to how you drive the best products.

Q: It was just announced that some Fisher-Price employees were offered relocation to California.

A: About a year and a half ago our company split its markets teams and our brand development teams. In the U.S., the brand development team used to also sell our products to the retailers. And so we made the decision to let the brand teams focus on creating great product and really strengthening our brands, and pulling the U.S. market off their plate. So it created a separate team. And in every other market around the globe, that team all sits together, so they made the decision to pull that team together and it happens to be in L.A. So, unfortunately we have some people who were offered jobs to move to L.A. They’re still in the evaluation period of deciding whether they’re going to take those jobs, and if not we’re trying to find homes for as many people as possible.

Q: So what is the future role of Fisher-Price in East Aurora?

A: I can’t imagine we’d ever change what we have here. It’s always been about the product development and the brand development in East Aurora. The heritage and the knowledge base that exists here, I don’t think you could replicate that anywhere. It’s about creating great product at the end of the day and that happens here. I bought a house here, so I ain’t moving!

Q: East Aurora Mayor Al Kasprzak said Fisher-Price has become insular since being bought by Mattel. Would you beg to differ?

A: No, I get where he’s coming from. It’s hard because we have a big corporation now, and the government affairs team is out in Los Angeles and they manage those communications on a global basis.

We have a responsibility to this local community. We probably haven’t been as diligent because we have this global team.

We do a lot locally with Children’s Hospital, the Hispanic parade, a number of different things for events for the greater Buffalo area. It’s something we have to get back into.