As a college student in New Jersey, Jay Foreman spent the summer months in the resort town of Wildwood, working on the Boardwalk in the video arcades and boardwalk game booths. It was the early 1980s, an era in which major toy franchises, such as Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, Care Bears, My Little Pony, and Xavier Roberts’ Cabbage Patch Kids, were born. Little did Foreman know that he would soon be part of the toy industry.
“Working in that Boardwalk town, I gave away toys, stuffed animals, and novelties,” recalls Foreman, now CEO of Basic Fun!, the Florida-based company behind brands such as Cutetitos, Mash’Ems, and Lincoln Logs. “That was my first partial connection to the toy merchandising world — by being in an industry that didn’t actually sell toys, but gave toys away.”
After graduation, Foreman went back to the Boardwalk for one final summer of dishing out prizes to families on the Jersey Shore. With fall and winter ahead, he found himself faced with a new question: “What to do?”
“As any normal mother would be, my mother was asking me, ‘When are you going to get a real job?’” Foreman says. “It was time to see if there was a real job opportunity for me somewhere, and it just so happened that some friends from home knew a guy that was in the toy business and was looking for a salesman in New York. That was Hank Mackin, the sales manager at Fable Toys.”
The Fable Toy Co. manufactured plush toys and novelties from a factory on Pearl Street in Brooklyn, New York. Following an interview with Mackin, Foreman was hired on the spot.
“My first real job right out of college was selling toys,” Foreman says. “I didn’t even get a salary — I got a $250 a month draw against commission. My first customers happened to be right back in amusements — the Jersey Shore, places like Six Flags, and local carnivals and fairs.”
To Retail and Beyond
A successful run of experience across a few smaller companies in the amusement industry led Foreman to meet San Antonio-based fast-food entrepreneur Arturo Torres. In 1990, Torres recruited Foreman to co-found Play By Play Toys & Novelties, and they both led the company’s expansion beyond the redemption industry and into retail.
“I always had the fantasy and vision of breaking out of the carnival and amusement business and going into retail, but we just didn’t have the line,” Foreman explains. “We made toys of a certain quality and design profile that were perfect for amusement but didn’t have the quality, packing, or sales force behind them to get into retail.”
It was a pair of licensing deals in 1992 that changed the scale and scope for Play By Play, opening the doors to mass retail. Foreman locked agreements with The Coca-Cola Co. and Harley-Davidson.
“I was clever enough to not ask for the carnival license, but to ask for the plush license overall,” Foreman says. “Neither one of them had anyone doing plush toys, nor did they have any interest in plush toys, so they gave me the license. We first designed a line of carnival toys, but then I got with my designer to design a retail quality line, and that was it. We weren’t a vendor of record with Walmart or Toys ‘R’ Us, but now we had a full line to offer.”
Play By Play debuted its line in a suite at the Sheraton Hotel in Hong Kong, setting up appointments by cold-calling buyers from any company that would listen. Walmart took one look at the line and was on board.
“They cut me an order for $260,000 worth of product on the spot, which was at that point the largest order I’d ever written,” Foreman says. “At that point, I was in the retail toy business.”
As the doors swung open to the major players in retail, Play By Play soon inked major licensing deals with Warner Bros. for Looney Tunes and The Walt Disney Co. for retail plush. The boom took Play By Play from an amusement company doing $4 million a year in sales into a company with more than $60 million in annual sales in just five years. In 1995, an IPO managed by Gerard, Klauer, Mattison & Co. raised $26 million as the company went public on NASDAQ under the symbol PBYP. The company acquired its largest competitor, Ace Novelty, a year later, growing annual sales to $120 million.
In the mid-’90s, Foreman branched out and explored opportunities at bigger, more established toymakers, with the prospect of more opportunity and the chance to take some risks for bigger payoffs.
“Early in my career, I was working for family companies. Fable Toys was run by an elderly brother and sister who were in their ‘70s when they sold it to a Korean family,” Foreman explains. “When I got into a family business, I knew there wasn’t a lot of upsides there. It wasn’t until I started working in San Antonio at Play By Play that I was able to experience work outside of a family business, where the structure was that of a corporation.”
Foreman says that Play By Play was a fantastic five-year piece of business, but things changed after they took the company public.
“Arturo and I just didn’t see eye-to-eye on where we wanted to take the business,” he says. “He wanted to take things further into amusements with the purchase of Ace Novelty, and I wanted to go bigger at retail. It just came time to part company so that he could run with his vision of the company as its senior shareholder.”
A Legendary Toy Co. Comes Calling
Based near San Francisco, Galoob was known for toys based on big licenses, including The A-Team and WCW wrestling, but Micro Machines arguably became its most well-known line for nearly a decade bridging the ‘80s and ‘90s. Along with popular (and sometimes controversial) acquisitions, such as the Game Genie and Sky Dancers, Galoob was the third-largest publicly traded toy company at the time, bringing in more than $300 million in annual sales. When the opportunity to work for Galoob came along, Foreman was tantalized.
“Galoob was a real toy company,” he says. “At Play By Play, we made plush that was cut and sewn, but Galoob had action figures and vehicles. They had Micro Machines, and Pound Puppies, and Sky Dancers — real, traditional toys. It was an opportunity for me to really learn more about the traditional toy industry.”
Galoob recruited Foreman to create a FOB (free on board) direct import business to mirror what Mattel had accomplished with its acquisition of Hong Kong-based ARCO Industries in 1986. While Mattel made Barbies, ARCO made the fashions, and Galoob wanted its own ancillary arm.
“Mattel would make the Barbie Dream House, but the FOB division would make the add-on furniture packs to go with it, or the styling heads,” explains Foreman. “The idea was to give the retailers something that they could make a higher margin on. Those items would be a complement to the promoted brands that were traditionally lower margin for the retailer and higher margin for the toy companies. Galoob was a growing company and felt that it wanted that.”
At Galoob, Foreman established Galoob Direct, a division that could be the FOB, but also developed “blue sky” business of new product that could be quickly tested and integrated into the mainline if they worked.
Girl Power and The Galactic Empire
Galoob wasn’t in the doll business at the time, but there were enough staffers that had worked at Mattel on Barbie to capture lightning in a bottle when the biggest girl group of the decade hit the scene. The Spice Girls debut album, Spice, arrived in 1996 and quickly rocketed the group to global pop stardom. In the following year, Foreman had the idea to bring Sporty, Scary, Posh, Baby, and Ginger Spice into toy departments.
“We had this incredible opportunity to grab this really hot pop culture phenomenon that was happening,” he says. “Spice Girls came along just a few years after New Kids on the Block [which had dolls by Hasbro], and I recognized that there was a real opportunity to acquire that license and develop that line.”
Spice Girls dolls were rushed to market alongside the group’s sophomore album, Spice World, and exceeded $125 million in sales in 1998.
“Along the way, unbeknownst to me and almost everyone else at the company, Galoob had been in negotiations with Hasbro to sell itself,” Foreman says. “The company had a piece of the Star Wars license for Micro Machines, and Hasbro wanted to have the whole thing. Galoob was very successful in developing micro-scale vehicles and playsets. They convinced Lucasfilm to give them the license in a period where there were no movies — there was a big downtime where Micro Machines carried on the Star Wars brand.”
Hasbro acquired Galoob and shuttered the San Francisco office, just as Foreman was recruited by Empire of Carolina to head marketing and product development at is headquarters in Boca Raton, Florida.
“One of the founders of the old Arco Toys was running Empire, and at the time Empire owned Buddy L, Marshon, Crocodile Mile, Big Wheel, and others,” explains Foreman. “They had a big factory in the Carolinas that was manufacturing toys. Empire was also making the big blow-molded Christmas decorations that people would have outside when we were kids. They had great products, but it wasn’t a great business, and it was in turnaround.”
A New Play with Old Classics
During his short stint at Empire, Foreman met Charlie Emby, current co-president of Just Play, who was working as head of sales at Empire. Together, Foreman and Emby left to start their own company. In 1999, the duo formed Play Along Toys with an angel investment of $3 million. The first product line from the company owed much inspiration to Galoob’s Spice Girls doll line, as Foreman quickly snagged the license to create dolls based on an up-and-coming pop star and former Mouseketeer named Britney Spears.
Making dolls based on pop stars had a proven track record of success, largely based on the ability to hit quick and get out. Other dolls based on early ‘00s pop stars soon followed, including Sisqo, Aaron Carter, LFO, and Mandy Moore. The next big hits tapped into nostalgia long before the “retro” movement fully hit.
“We launched Care Bears and Cabbage Patch Kids about two years apart,” Foreman says. “Care Bears was completely dormant. Kenner was pretty much off of it by 1987, and very little was happening with it. Over the years when I was in the carnival business, I would occasionally reach out and try to get the license and they always said, ‘No, maybe another time.’ It just so happened that around 2001, American Greetings decided to bring back Care Bears. I don’t think they even had a real plan, but they finally realized that they had an asset and weren’t exploiting it.”
American Greetings sub-contracted the licensing for Care Bears to the Joester Loria Group, the principals of which were already familiar with Foreman’s work with plush. They got in touch to ask if he’d be interested in doing a new line with Play Along.
“You bet your ass I was interested!” says Foreman. “This was a line that I was not only aware of, but also tried to get several times over a 15-year span. At the same time, Cabbage Patch Kids had been out there consistently, but it changed hands between Coleco, to Hasbro, and then Mattel and hadn’t had a presence in a big way.”
Play Along played into nostalgia, but not quite retro. Unlike today’s cross-generational retro movement, many of the kids who’d played with Cabbage Patch Kids and Care Bears the first time around weren’t parents yet.
“We didn’t approach it with the zeitgeist of, ‘Where you a kid that played with Cabbage Patch Kids and now you’re a mom?’ It had only been 15 to 20 years since those brands first hit the market,” Foreman explains. “So there was nostalgia, but it was still first-gen. There was enough there that it just took off.”
The success of Play Along attracted the interest of Jakks Pacific, which approached the company with a purchase offer. In 2004, Play Along became a division of Jakks Pacific, and sales reached $168 million.
Play Along relaunched Cabbage Patch Kids with an event at Mall of America attended by Xavier Roberts and Paula Adbul, right when American Idol was hitting its peak success.
“When we sold to Jakks, we had a three and a half year earn-out agreement. We’d run Play Along for them, and if we jumped certain hurdles and made our numbers, we’d get various bonuses,” Foreman says. “Of course, we were in Florida and they were in California, so they were 3,000 miles away and let us run the business autonomously. Nothing really changed. We would’ve been happy to stay on, but [Jakks’ president and CEO] Stephen Berman had some other ideas.”
A Bridge to Basic Fun!
Following the exit from Jakks Pacific, Foreman considered taking time off to spend with family. He had just welcomed a second kid and had a non-compete agreement, which made the prospect of starting a new toy company less than appealing. On top of it, the financial crisis of 2008 was hitting families hard.
“I had no interest in working with a start-up,” he recalls. “But then I got recruited by a private equity firm called Oaktree Capital Management that was interested in acquiring Jakks Pacific. They liked the business and wanted to take it private, but needed someone experienced in the industry to lead it. It couldn’t have been a more interesting opportunity for me, having sold my company to Jakks and then working within their corporate structure for more than three years.”
Foreman accepted the offer, and for much of the first year following his Jakks exit, he worked with Oaktree on the plan for the “take private” offer, which ultimately failed to materialize.
“It’s interesting to think about this now, but around 2011 or so, we made a formal offer for Jakks at $20 per share, which would’ve valued the business at around $670 million,” Foreman says. “Now, someone just offered around 80 cents a share, which puts it at less than $30 million eight years later.”
In 2009 in the midst of the Jakks deal, Foreman and Oaktree invested in a start-up called The Bridge Direct. The idea was to put a team together and keep it busy until they could eventually move the team over to Jakks.
“Funny enough, the first product we manufactured was Justin Bieber dolls,” he says. “This was the third company that I started within 15 years or so that began with a pop music celebrity line.”
By 2013, it was apparent that the Jakks deal wasn’t going to happen. In the meantime, Foreman was now running a small toy company and began thinking of how he could possibly build his own future.
“I looked at Jakks and decided that if you can’t buy them, build them,” he says, planting the first seeds of his “roll-up” strategy with the acquisition of Basic Fun!/Good Stuff. “If I couldn’t buy Jakks Pacific, I decided I could build what would hopefully be a better version of it.” The purchase of Basic Fun!/Good Stuff created a direct tie to Foreman’s roots in the amusement industry, not just in the product assortment, but with the people involved. Stephen Chernin, who worked with Foreman at Play by Play, and Hank Mackin, who hired Foreman at Fable, were running the newly acquired company.
Foreman rolled The Bridge Direct into Basic Fun!/Good Stuff, acquired Uncle Milton, merged with Tech4Kids, and adopted Basic Fun! as the company name. Over the past two years, the company acquired K’NEX, Geoworld, and Playhut, substantially growing the business with each move.
What’s Old is New Again … Again
In May, CloudCo Entertainment inked a deal with Basic Fun! to relaunch Care Bears as the master toy partner for North America and the UK. The company plans a fresh and unique take on the brand with a full range of products set to focus on interactivity, collectibility, and playability with an emphasis on sharing and caring.
“When we relaunched Care Bears at Play Along, it was the same parents and grandparents remembering what a great gift it was and now they were buying it for someone new,” Foreman says. “What’s really neat now is that millennial moms were Care Bears kids. There are many moms that are in the 40-42 range that now have kids that are 4-6, which is the same age they were when they played with Care Bears for the first time.”
Foreman is excited to get another shot at Care Bears — currently in the running for a slot in the Toy Hall of Fame — with some new tech that simply didn’t exist 20 years ago.
“Social media changes the whole thing. We didn’t have social media back then — it was all about the commercials and getting toys on TODAY and industry hot toy lists,” he says, noting that while some elements are the same, the new interaction puts toy marketing on a different level. “We didn’t have unboxers. There weren’t celebrities with huge followings that they could instantly reach. Now we have all of that. Now Miley Cyrus can put on a Care Bears onesie and it’s everywhere. It’s exciting!”
The following month, Basic Fun! kicked off Licensing Expo with news that it inked a licensing deal with Hasbro to produce the iconic Tonka brand. When the new line of Tonka trucks and vehicles roll into stores next year, they will join other retro products from Basic Fun!, including Lite Brite, Speak and Spell, Lincoln Logs, and a full range of Arcade Classics.
“What’s happened is that a lot of individual toys have been acquired by Mattel and Hasbro — and now a little bit with Spin Master — through acquisitions, and they don’t have a home in the categories of the bigger companies,” Foreman explains. “The bigger companies have a hard time manufacturing and marketing them at the right price, so we’ve become a sort of landing pad for these classic toys that we can work with because of our lower overhead and cost structure. The challenge for us is that we’ve done so many, we’re running out of great classic, retro toys to work with.”
Tonka is a brand with major recognition that hadn’t been fully built to its potential in recent years, during which it was most recently manufactured by Funrise. On a few occasions, it looked as if Hasbro may sell the brand outright.
“That probably restricted Funrise a bit,” Foreman says, noting that there hadn’t been much of a push for Tonka at all, even on the basic notes of nostalgia. “Tonka goes beyond — our mission and goal is to remind people that your grandfather played with Tonka trucks. Your dad had a Tonka truck. There’s a lot of attics and a lot of garages that contain Tonka trucks. This is a toy with history and quality that gets kids off their devices and out there playing.”
Future Growth and Combining the Classics
Looking ahead, Foreman doesn’t count out the possibility of more acquisitions as Basic Fun! continues to grow. He’s always on the lookout for new possibilities when it comes to collaboration — and that includes working with retail buyers to create new products, some of which are mash-ups of existing properties and brands.
Ahead of Pac-Man’s 40th anniversary next year, the Toy Book can exclusively reveal that Basic Fun! is kicking off the celebration this fall with the all-new K’NEX Pac-Man Roller Coaster Building Set — a toy created by request from Walmart.
“The buyer at Walmart has been carrying K’NEX for a long time, and knows the excitement around the brand,” Foreman says. “Beyond our core line, he’s been looking for ways to combine some of his most popular pop culture properties with K’NEX, and the Pac-Man coaster is the first item we’re doing together.”
The working roller coaster includes more than 400 parts, such as classic-sized K’NEX rods and connectors, flexible roller coaster track, and a battery-powered motor that drives the chain-link coaster car lift. Kids and families can build the ride and then watch as the Pac-Man-shaped coaster car zips through twists and turns on a hunt to gobble up Ghosts and cherries.
Following its public unveiling in Basic Fun!’s “Totally ‘80s” display at the Toy Insider’s Holiday of Play event, the K’NEX Pac-Man Roller Coaster Building Set will be available exclusively at Walmart this November.
Foreman says that this is just the beginning, with popular franchises such as Ghostbusters being discussed for future collaborations.
In the meantime, the company is prepping to show off some of its forthcoming product lines at Dallas Toy Fair, while Foreman — who has held board positions with both LIMA and The Toy Association — continues to be one of the most vocal players in the toy industry in pushing back against increased tariffs on goods imported from China.