Monday, December 12, 2005

Tis the Season for a Management Epic

“It's the first week of November, and Christmas is coming fast. Santa's elves are working overtime, and why not? His toys have guaranteed distribution.
“Things aren't so simple at Toronto-based Spin Master Ltd. "

That’s the opening to my feature story on Spin Master, Canada's largest toy company, in the latest issue of PROFIT Magazine. It’s a pretty long piece, but it’s one of my all-time favorites, and I think it’s worth your time.

For the first time, the reclusive management team at one of Canada’s most innovative and globally successful firms opens up about how they work, their greatest challenges and where they’re heading next. They offered me full access to their daily schedules for five days, enabling a rare inside glimpse into the workings of one of Canada’s most-honored growth companies.

Adding a human element to the piece: the three owner/founders are all still in their early 30s, and they’ve been friends since university. This is a very human story about a huge business success and the founders’ remarkable ability to trust, squabble and move on.

Here’s an excerpt, for those who are too busy to click through right now and think they’ll remember tomorrow:

Despite Spin Master's many successes, [co-CEO] Anton Rabie sees its evolution as a daily battle to exist. "Every day I wake up, I am being attacked," he says, eyes flashing with characteristic intensity. "I've come to realize that this is my life."

We're in his tidy, spacious office in late October, trying to conduct an interview while the phone rings and colleagues rush in looking for urgent decisions. "The LC is four weeks late!" complains one. Whenever there's a lull, Rabie rolls his highback chair to his computer table to check his inbox. "Wow," he says. "I just got an ugly e-mail."

At its size [more than $300-million], you'd think Spin Master had earned the right to give other people ulcers. But here are just a few of the challenges Rabie is dealing with this day:

* The rising cost of plastic foam following the hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico has forced Rabie to request an emergency price increase for its kids' beds. But one buyer has just turned Rabie down flat. In a terse e-mail, the buyer adds archly, "Let us know if you don't want to ship. We have alternative product lined up."

* Meanwhile, Spin Master has been trying for weeks to license an exciting new toy technology. The deal is all but done, but the inventor just found another problem with Spin Master's proposed terms. (This haggling will continue for weeks, threatening the company's spring schedule for rolling out the new product.)

* A movie producer is about to award product licences for its next animated feature. Spin Master has a new product that would fit this property perfectly—but isn't ready to announce it. Rabie gets on the phone, lobbying hard for the producer to await Spin Master's bid.

* Meanwhile, the acquisition of a niche toy company in the U.S. seems stalled, and Rabie has to get things moving again. "Let's schedule a meeting, anywhere in the world you want to meet," he tells the prospect over the phone. His goal is to get his CFO, Mark Segal, and his outside legal counsel in the same room as the U.S. toymaker until a deal is done. "How about you send the markup by Tuesday, we meet in New York Thursday at 4 p.m., and we either leave happy or sad?" In the end, the meeting is cancelled.

"Either it's a retailer cancelling an order, competitors coming into our category or an acquisition where the terms are falling apart," says Rabie grimly. "Our business is under attack every single day." Then, flashing a grim smile, he adds, "It's great entertainment."

Read the rest of the story here.
(Hint: to read it all without having to click to a new page every few paragraphs, scroll to the bottom of the page and click on "Print Story." You can also copy and paste the story from that pop-up window if you want to save it for later.)

And let me know what you think. Leave a comment below.

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