Greening the Toy Industry with Luke’s Toy Factory’s Jim Barber

August 4, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored to have with us today Jim Barber. He’s the Managing Partner of Luke’s Toy Factory. Welcome to Green is Good, Jim. JIM BARBER: Thank you for having me on. I really appreciate it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Jim, you have a fascinating background that has nothing to do with the toy industry really. Can you share your journey and your story leading up to the founding of Luke’s Toy Factory? JIM BARBER: Well, sure. My main business for most of my life has been as a photography. I’m what’s known as a still life photographer. I do products. I do annual reports, advertising, all kinds of business to business photography so while I haven’t had direct contact with a manufacturing environment, I’ve had a lot of interaction with people in those businesses and as you’re sitting in the studio working on things, you spend a lot of time talking about the business so I kind of got a little background into all that and then a few years ago, I met someone who was in the toy business and we started talking about things and he told me about how all these toys were being recalled and my kids were all grown by that point so I thought this was a good chance to get rid of these toys and I was looking at them and I noticed that all of these toys were made in China and not only that but a couple of them, I think it was the Thomas the Tank Engine toys, were some of the toys that had been recalled and when you see something like that, there’s kind of a feeling of this isn’t right. These guys had to know they were doing this so that’s kind of where I got started with the idea of maybe there’s a better way to approach the whole toy industry. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha, and so how did that evolve and for our listeners out there that want to follow along as Jim and I have a chat today, you can go to his great website. It’s www.lukestoyfactory.com. How did that discussion and your epiphany evolve bringing in your son, Luke? How did that all come about then to making a business out of this? JIM BARBER: Well, there was a few false starts. We originally what happens is 85 or 80% of the toys are made in China that are sold here in the U.S. Generally, for a wooden toy, that involved like a team of 30 to 40 people, each who have a specific job, and they’re low paid, hard working, but they’re extremely low paid workers in China and that’s how these companies are able to make their profit on these toys even though they have to ship them halfway across the earth to get them here so what I started looking at was how can you make a wooden toy here economically? And at the same time, I had found out about this process. It was really being used for decking and outdoor furniture. It’s called wood plastic composite so what that is is you take a plastic material and you replace between 30 and 40% of it with wood, with sawdust from basically a waste stream and where we’re getting ours is from furniture from factories out in the Midwest and the interesting thing is is that that material, even though a big part of it now is wood, it can be injection molded. The injection molding process makes it much easier to make a toy without having to have a team of factory workers. Your injection mold is a big part of the process. You still have people that run the machinery and there’s a lot of support people but it’s not quite the same as the massive numbers they throw into toy production in China. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, now technology has allowed an entrepreneur like you to transcend the old practices and really create a sustainable toy factory for the 21st century, a sustainable toy model for the 21st century? JIM BARBER: You know, the interesting thing too is that at the same time that this was developing, the whole 3D printing revolution was getting underway. I had actually gone to a national plastics convention down in Florida and that was the first place I saw a 3D printer. In the past, if you wanted to design a toy, you’d have to send it to some model maker and it would cost thousands to have them mock up a model. Now, you put it on a 3D printer and for less than $100, you’ve got a toy, so you can check it and make sure that it works. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is really interesting. I’d never thought of that. All right, so now you get going and at what part do you bring Luke? You’re talking to your son, come on and join and let’s do this together. Where does that happen? Where does that magic happen? Because that’s exciting, to bring your son in, and when did that happen and when did you guys realize with this new technology, you can create a business that can make profit and you can enjoy but also a model that can withstand and to grow, together as a real business model? JIM BARBER: I gotta say, there’s starts and stops to this whole story, and originally, the guy who I had as a friend who was in the toy industry was gonna go in with me on this whole idea and he was a designer and I thought well, he’ll be the one to design these toys but his process of design was completely different from the much more highly technical process of injection molding design and it wasn’t something that he was really comfortable with and he had other issues and just decided that he was gonna bail out of it so I was left with this 3D printer that I had leased and an idea but nobody to follow up and my son, Luke, had just graduated college and it was at the time when no one was getting hired for anything, like three years ago, so I said ‘Luke, come and learn this 3D Cad program and see if you can figure it out,’ and he’s always been interested in toys and he’s always been interested in that area of things but he’s much more literal mind in terms of how you do things so he actually took to this program really well and within a couple of months, he had some pretty nice designs. In fact, the fire truck was one of the first things that we had designed. Our thinking was that if worse comes to worst and we can’t sell them any place else, we could go around to individual fire companies all around Connecticut and we can sell them like 100 at a time as a promotion. There’s always a fallback and it involves throwing these things in the back of our car and driving around from store to store. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That was your B plan? JIM BARBER: Yeah. There’s a B plan, there’s a C plan. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I like it. JIM BARBER: That’s how I got my designs going and once I found out what Luke could do and he’s the one that came up with this idea of how they fit together and so we’re aiming for like preschool kids because in terms of the toy business, that’s when they’re still playing with toys. By the time they’re 6 or 7 or 8, all of a sudden, there’s computers and iPads and that really pulls them away so we wanted to make a toy that was a little bit of a challenge so that they didn’t just sit and watch it play, which it what happens with so many toys now. They push a button and the toy buzzes and rides around and does whatever it does. To us, we want the kids to make the sound and we want the kids to push it around. We want to get back to the simple wooden toy that has kind of fallen by the wayside with all of this fancy electronic stuff so Luke had this all in hand and then it was up to me to figure out how do we make these things and I went around to a bunch of injection molders and what I found out was for the most part, anybody who made this kind of stuff went out of business 20 years ago when everybody switched to China and most of the injection molding businesses now are in high end things, medical, aerospace, automotive, and getting someone to even talk to me was really difficult but eventually, I met this guy up in Southington here in Connecticut and he was willing to talk to me and as soon as he saw the toys, he was like okay, I’m in, I love them, so he’s been a real guiding star in terms of how you actually make this happen. He put us in touch with a mold maker up in Massachusetts and he put us in touch with the company that’s supplying our materials and so he’s really made huge difference. JOHN SHEGERIAN: If you just joined us, we’ve got Jim Barber. He’s the Managing Partner of Luke’s Toy Factory. You can check out what him and his son, Luke, are doing at LukesToyFactory.com. So, let’s talk about this. You and Luke have a green toy product. It doesn’t have all of the hazards that the old toys had and it’s made out of recycled materials, recycled plastic, you said, and sawdust. Is this the magic sauce that you’re making your products out of? JIM BARBER: Well, here’s the thing. The recycled part of it at this point is the sawdust, which comes from furniture factories. I would like to say that I’m using recycled resin but at this point, I have to work with what’s available. The problem is you have a very rigorous testing procedure you have to go through with toys. Each toy, each color, each part of the toy, they actually scrape and test and take out bits of the material and test for heavy metals and arsenic and things like that, which, believe it or not, are in colors, especially the old colorants that were coming from China. Everyone is pushing to get rid of that but in terms of the plastic, no one wants, at this point, to certify to me that they can give me recycled plastic that is clean and can pass these tests so at this point, I’m using virgin plastic and recycled material so between 30 and 40% of this product is recycled. I wish I could say it was 100% and we’re working towards that but again, I’m a small guy. It’s me and my son, Luke, and so what happens is you gotta take what you can get. On the other hand, this company that makes our material, a company called Raytech out in Michigan, they actually flew two people over here to meet us and sit down with us and show us colors and have really been open to all of it so we’re trying to work on a way to get a stream from a post industrial source instead of post consumer source, which can then give us a chain of custody so we know this is where it was and this is how it got to where it is. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Jim, in your new business life as an ecopreneur with Luke, talk a little bit about the fascinating balance between building a sustainable product but also safety and then also price because as we’ve done this show now over five year, whether you’re talking to Walmart or Coors or any of the other amazing and big and iconic brands from around the world or ecopreneurs like you that are really the innovators of the new generation and of the new economy, balancing sustainability with price and safety has become a journey. It’s never perfect. Can you talk a little bit about the balancing act that you always now have to adhere to and continue to watch while you build your business model? JIM BARBER: Well, that’s one of the reason, again, why we started with the idea of injection model, just to start an overview, is to make a wooden toy here , there are great people here in the U.S. that make wonderful wooden toys and I take nothing away from them. There are terrific handmade wonderful things. My daughter goes to college up in Vermont and you see these companies up there making these great things but they’re handmade and so that’s expensive and you have to pay a premium for that. What I’m trying to do is I’m trying to compete with the $15 to $20 toy that comes from China and to those people that are buying those toys, they can look at a $45 handmade wooden toy and it’s great but they’re not gonna buy that for their kids because they just can’t. That’s just the way of the world today so by using the injection molding process, you take out a certain amount of the need to make everything out of hand so you can injection mold it and the color is in the toy so you don’t have paint on the surface. We’ve designed them so there’s no metal axles, there’s no screws, nails, anything like that. When we test it, we have to use materials that are safe, which is why we have to balance the recycled plastic at this point with the virgin plastic but again, I think as we become bigger, we’ll have a better chance to say to these companies here’s what we want, solve the problem, and these companies will do it. They’re making this material without a buyer. They’re making it to lead people and that, I think, is a great thing. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Listen. When Steve Jobs built the iPhone, he didn’t know whether it was buying and you’re doing the same here. Talk a little bit. Are other toy companies green like yours and where is the toy business changing right now and where do you see it going in the months and years ahead, Jim? JIM BARBER: Well, I think if I had to say one toy company that I look on as a role model, it’s a company called Green Toys. They’re out in California. They make their toys out of recycled milk bottles, HDPE, and they make a different product. They make a completely different thing from us. They make a pure plastic toy. They make a toy that’s done in the style of plastic toys. What we’re trying to do is make our toy in the style of wooden toys with a little more detail than you can afford to make as a wood worker but they’re a great company. There was another company that briefly was using wood plastic composites here in the U.S., but again, with more of a plastic style but then they got bought by a Chinese company and they’re gone so basically, as far as I know, it’s us and Green Toys and then the great number of more handmade things. There’s certain kinds of things that it makes more sense to make here in the U.S. and there’s a lot of things that are made by more handmade kinds of methods that are great products. There is a whole world of American toy manufacturers but you have to look for them. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right. Are you worried about others copying your idea? JIM BARBER: I don’t want them copying our designs, but if they copy the idea of making toys here in the U.S. sustainably and in some way I have a small part of making that happen, I’m perfectly happy. I’m not trying to become rich off of this. I’m trying to make toys for people who can afford them here in the U.S. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Are most of your sales now online or eventually, are you gonna into more of the traditional toy sales companies that are retail or are you gonna mix a balance of retail and online? What’s your vision and Luke’s vision on that? JIM BARBER: Right now, we’re gonna be mostly online and the biggest reason for that is two things. Creating a retail package is difficult and expensive. It’s a tough thing to do and right now, we don’t have the resources to do that and the second things is managing a retail environment where you have 5,000 retailers who each take 12 toys each means that that’s a lot of phone calls and a lot of billing and a lot of following up, whereas you can go for online retailers, which is where the business is going. Amazon and large retailers are killing the local market so that may change. It’s all in a state of flux, but right now, that’s where it’s going. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Jim, with regards to doing business, right now, your business is all in the family with you and Luke. What other sustainable things are you guys doing now that you’ve got green on your mind with Luke’s Toy Factory in your own household? JIM BARBER: With the company ourselves and with us as a family, what we try to do is we try to buy locally. We try to work locally, keep that whole distance thing down to a minimum. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, buy local and buy your toys from Luke’s Toy Factory. Jim, we’re gonna have you back on and hopefully, maybe even have Luke on with you one day. To learn more about the story of Luke’s Toy Factory or buy their toys, go to www.lukestoyfactory.com. Jim Barber, thank you for being an inspirational sustainable toy innovator for the 21st century. You are truly living proof that green is good.