Wham-O seeks to reinvent its toys for the digital age

Frisbees, Hula Hoops for a different generation

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LOS ANGELES — Life was once an easy summer breeze for Wham-O. The southern California toy outfit, founded in a South Pasadena garage shortly after World War II, churned out Frisbees like pancakes and Super Balls like gumballs.

Its Boogie Board — devised in 1971 by Orange County-bred Bahai surfer Tom Morey — stood sentinel in suburban garages. Only squares didn’t own a Hula-Hoop — introduced in 1957, with 100 million units sold within three years.

In Wham-O’s television ads, its iconic starburst logo dropped into living rooms like a Super Ball off a third-story balcony.

But times have changed.

Of the many entertainment-centric outfits disrupted by the digital era, few have been upended as has Wham-O. Its toys, once symbols of an endless summer, are now relics of a bygone season. Even the notion of a business devoted to plastic playthings feels like an anachronism. Why kick around a beanbag when there’s FIFA Mobile Soccer?

Wham-O has had a rough time financially too. Sales fell sharply from their peak, but were still hovering around $80 million as of 2005, according to public documents and company statements.

Since then they’ve slipped further, to less than a quarter of that as of 2015.

But a new set of executives isn’t convinced the company is doomed. Since they took over at the start of last year, they’ve come up with a number of new ideas and, such as Super Elastic Bubble Plastic — introduced in 1970 — set out to put some air in them.

“We think there’s a way to make our products the new cool,” said Wham-O President Todd Richards. “Being outside can be the new iPhone.”

Richards is in his ground-floor workspace at Wham-O headquarters in Carson, an office in a series of low-slung industrial-looking buildings tucked off a main road outside Los Angeles.

Around his desk lie various distractions — or are they research? A miniature basketball hoop. A water balloon “aqua bow.” Balls, discs and an assortment of flying objects. Richards turns to them when he needs a break from thinking about how to modernize his company, or as inspiration for the same.

Like, for example, the YouTube channel the company has created, in which users can do things such as upload videos of their creative uses of the Slip ’N Slide.

“Officially the box says under 12,” he said wryly of the watery backyard implement. “Not everyone abides by that.”

Richards oversees an area staff of about 30 employees. (A second office of about 50 staffers is in Hong Kong.) The group’s mission: to tweak designs and marketing for the 21st century.

At their core, after all, many of their products function the same way as those toys in Grandpa’s basement. But Richards maintains they can be repositioned for a new audience.

At the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival at Indio, Calif., this year, Wham-O sent out ambassadors. The emissaries handed out Hacky Sacks — first licensed by Wham-O in 1983 and contractually required to be present for Phish to perform — and talked to concertgoers about how to master the mini-sphere.

The idea was to update the toy’s image from 1990s jam-band staple to 2017 hip-hop accouterment.

“A lot of young people would love our products if they got the chance to know what they are. But they’ve never had the opportunity,” said Olyvia Pronin, the company’s director of marketing. “We’re trying to show them what they’re missing by going to wherever they are.”

Or to whatever they’re on. Wham-O is developing a Frisbee app that essentially will allow the disc to be “thrown” from one mobile device to another — all the gratification of backhanding a low slider to your buddy without any of that that running-into-trees messiness.

“You’re sitting in a meeting and you say, ‘Hey, Paul, catch this,’” Richards said, miming a wrist-flick swipe across an imaginary screen. “And Paul is at the other end of conference room and he looks up and ‘catches it’ just in time.”

After being run as a family business for nearly 35 years — the company was founded in 1948 by Richard Knerr and Arthur “Spud” Melin, who capitalized on what were then cutting-edge chemical and industrial advances — Wham-O in the last few decades has endured a revolving door of owners, including Mattel, not to mention a series of retail woes.

Richards took over as president when the faltering Wham-O was sold to his privately held Carson-based InterSport and Hong Kong-based Stallion Sport for an undisclosed — but certainly bargain-basement — sum at the end of 2015. The seller was Cornerstone Overseas Investments, which had owned Wham-O for about 10 years and watched as sales cratered.

Richards believes he’s finally hit upon a winning formula. Soft-spoken but physically imposing — he’s a dirt-bike aficionado who commutes to work on his motorcycle — the executive was a vice president of sales for Wham-O in the early 2000s.

After leaving the company, he watched with some consternation as Wham-O under Cornerstone tried to compete using more generic products such as beach sand pails.

Richards had little hope he could do anything about that until Stallion’s chief, Joseph Lin, approached him several years ago with word that Wham-O was available. The two parties soon had put together financing and closed the deal.

Lin, Wham-O’s CEO, declined to be interviewed for this article.

With eBay and other entities driving a huge nostalgia industry — the company has a store on the retail site, should you be in the market for that vintage Wham-O hunting slingshot — Richards made the acquisition under the belief that Wham-O was well-situated and just needed some new energy. He quickly created a startup environment to rethink how Wham-O does business.

The company’s Carson offices feel like a space where employees of a Silicon Valley giant might engage in some much-needed toy-based relaxation from their stressful jobs. Only in this case, the toys are the stressful jobs.

For a mature business such as Wham-O’s, the company’s ability to innovate can turn on small tweaks.

Wham-O also is using a crowdsourcing model, hearing as many as several dozen pitches per week from ordinary citizens who think they’ve come up with the next great toy. The ideas sometimes find their way into the company’s product-development pipeline.

The idea is to make all outdoor Wham-O toys as ubiquitous as Silly String — invented in 1972.

New physical toys have been a priority, too.

The aqua bow, for example, allows for water balloons to be shot a maximum distance of 150 yards, instantly making any family picnic more perilous.

And Richards said a radical new Frisbee design is on its way. It’s shaped more like a square and can “self-correct” and fly longer and straighter than the saucer-shaped disc that’s been keeping us and our mutts happy for years.

“It will change everything,” Richards said.

For any Frisbee or Hacky Sack purist who thinks perfection can’t be improved upon, a worthy reminder comes in the form of an Aerobie (not a Wham-O product). The hollowed-out disc, created on a lark by a Stanford physicist decades after the Frisbee, could coast endlessly on air and made a certain summer camper circa 1987 feel as if he had the arm of Joe Montana.

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