It’s not every day that a Zoom meeting with one of my toy suppliers has to be delayed at the very last minute. But, when I joined the toy industry a few years ago, I never could have imagined the email I received one morning last week:
“I might be a little late, as I am in the bomb shelter.”
I work at a toy retailer in Maryland, and when Putin invaded Ukraine last month, my wife and I wanted to see how we could help. Companies worldwide immediately began an impressive array of voluntary and heartening boycotts of Russian products and services — but we don’t buy anything from Russia.
That’s when we realized that we have a Ukrainian supplier, Wise Elk Toys, which I immediately called to see how we could get involved in supporting the country. I expected to get the company’s U.S. distributor in Frederick, Maryland on the line. Instead, I got straight through to Rolin Kostya, Wise Elk’s young and entrepreneurial founder, at one of his facilities in Western Ukraine. His factory and the partner factories he works with are near Ivano-Frankivsk, a city west of Lviv. The city’s local airport has been attacked and there is currently a curfew, but Wise Elk is fully operational.
I spoke with Rolin, an inspiring Ukrainian toy industry leader, about his company, the current situation in Ukraine, and how he remains optimistic during such a tumultuous time.
“Life Is Very Different”
Rolin’s mother-in-law and wife Dana are working with kid refugees at a humanitarian center and the day I spoke with him, Rolin had just spent half the day helping there. The refugee situation is serious, but the country is coping.
“The situation is, of course, scary, but not so bad here in western Ukraine,” Rolin says. “We are a city of about 250,000 — and about 12,000 to 15,000 mainly women and children have left — but about 50,000 refugees from eastern Ukraine have arrived, so the city looks completely full,” Rolin says.
Over the past few weeks, a few rockets land at Ivano-Frankivsk’s local airport , which links to Kyiv and Lviv. The week I spoke to them, there had been a half dozen air raid warnings — and indeed one interrupted the Zoom call — and Rolin and Dana sought refuge in a bomb shelter.
Rolin says that life is very different, but sometimes it is hard to remember how different. The day before our conversation, Rolin was driving to one of the factories and was stopped at one of the checkpoints. He had forgotten the car had an automatic accident video camera, so it was confiscated.
Within the first 24 hours of the Russian attack on Feb. 24, Rolin and Dana thought of leaving. “The first day was very, very scary. Chaotic. But it’s very hard. You can’t take everyone,” Rolin says. His family mainly lives in Lviv and they were not planning on leaving. It was also not clear how they would return to their homes. “Ivano-Frankisk was hit by rockets that first day, but on the third day we understood it didn’t look like the Russians would come here. They most certainly will be stopped somewhere near Kyiv … and at least we can do something here to help and do our job,” Rolin says.
The Decision to Start Wise Elk
After his first year of college, Rolin worked for American drink company Monster Energy in sales and marketing. He worked for the company for five years until Monster Energy decided to pull operations from much of Eastern Europe. In 2015, that was the turning point for Rolin and his business partner. They decided they didn’t want to be a small piece of a big game and started their own company.
Rather than import, they instead worked out what to export to the American market. Toys weren’t their first decision: They started with Christmas ornaments, but that didn’t pan out. Incidentally, some of their friends started a business with ceramic pictures and they realized they could make craft kits with the small remnant parts left over from the ceramic process. And that was the beginning of the Wise Elk craft models line.
Rolin thinks that this war will give the local economy a boost for local businesses. As eastern Ukraine — mostly Kyiv — is challenged by the unpredictable supply chain, local businesses have already grown and found creative solutions to mitigate the effects of these problems.
Rolin has 24 pallets ready to ship and thinks he will be able to get shipments out of all three factories next week. Although, he admits sometimes his positive attitude gets the better of him. “It’s hard to plan. I discussed with one factory that the most you can plan at this time is for the next one to two days.”
Despite dealing with multiple challenges, Wise Elk Toys has only missed one trade show and has American partners who can help maintain a presence on their behalf. The company also has a Lithuanian partner who plans on visiting the U.S. soon. And, Rolin is certainly hoping to come to ASTRA in June.
When I asked what the toy industry could do to help support Ukrainian businesses, we were interrupted by an air raid siren. Rolin told me how great it is that so many of his customers are reaching out to support Ukrainian brands and Ukrainian companies. He introduced me to UGears, which also has a line of excellent toys and gifts. And, of course, he mentioned that Ukraine has IT services and products that can be supported.
Rolin also works with other specialty toy stores in the U.S., including Hey Joy, Happy Up, Geppetto’s Toys, Timberdoodle, Rainbow Resources, Shenanigans, and Bartons Child Play.
If there was one common theme I kept hearing in all Rolin’s answers, it was his practical desire to get tasks done and his impressive and creative adaptability — dealing head-on with issues when they come up and addressing them in an inspiring, but matter-of-fact, way. I wondered if it was a national characteristic.
I started our Zoom call showing Rolin how Wicked Uncle Toys was showcasing his products, and I finished by placing the next order. He was clearly pleased that, as much as possible, it was business as usual.