Kids R best for toy advice, teen exec says

February 09, 1993|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,New York Bureau

NEW YORK -- At 17 already a three-year veteran of the hard-edged toy industry, kid executive Mary Rodas has a sharp word for the competition gathered here this week for the American International Toy Fair.

"They don't have enough kids involved in making toys. Toys are made for kids, but most companies only have kids involved at the last stage," Miss Rodas said.

The result, she said, are toys that grown-ups think are nifty but which often bore children. When companies finally discover the mistake during test-marketing, they have already wasted millions dollars, she said.

Miss Rodas has carved out a niche for herself by ensuring that her employer, Catco Inc., doesn't make the same mistake. Since she was 14, she has been vice president for marketing and chief toy tester, making sure that the company's balls, hats, backpacks and watches are kid-approved.

"Children are more honest to me. To a parent or another adult they might not be so open. But if they don't like a color or design they tell me," Miss Rodas said.

As proof, Miss Rodas rattles off a string of changes that Catco has made at her request: a beauty mark on a dinosaur's cheek was painted over ("They looked like dinosaur pimples."); a watch strap was redesigned ("The colors were ugly."); and a ball was given a brighter design ("It looked too dull.").

Her job really started 13 years ago when she criticized tile work laid down by New Jersey inventor Donald Spector. Her father, a handyman in the building where Mr. Spector lives, was called to do other work. Mr. Rodas brought his 4-year-old daughter along, who told Mr. Spector that his tile work was flawed.

The criticism caught Mr. Spector's attention, and soon Miss Rodas was giving her advice on his toy designs each weekend. Three years ago, when Mr. Spector's Catco toy company launched its big hit, the Balzac ball, Miss Rodas helped with the designs and ads. Soon she was vice president for marketing, where she puts in three, 3-hour days a week evaluating products.

Her pay package is worth about $200,000, she estimates. A limo takes her from school to work in Manhattan's Toy Center on Fifth Avenue and then to her home in New Jersey. Plus, she receives tuition to a private high school, money toward her college tuition and money to buy stocks and bonds.

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