Mechanical birds hatch golden egg

Lucrative niche found in old-fashioned toys

January 21, 2001|By BOSTON GLOBE

ROWLEY, Mass. - In 1975, Jack Schylling was a Harvard graduate peddling mechanical toy birds on the streets of Boston.

"It was near Faneuil Hall," he recalls. "And when the office towers emptied out at lunch, there were some of my classmates in suits. My parents were a little bemused at how I had parlayed a Harvard degree into a street peddler's license."

Twenty-six years later, after much growth and several evolutions, the company Schylling founded and runs with his two brothers is hoping to cash in on toys tied to the first Harry Potter movie, which is scheduled for release in November.

Schylling Associates Inc. has a license to market tin toys and collectibles based on the first J. K. Rowling novel, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."

With suggested retail prices of about $12, a Schylling line that includes lunch boxes and pencil cases is beginning to hit toy store shelves.

But even if the Harry Potter lunch box is a bust, Schylling Associates will survive. Big toy companies can be dependent on big hits. But Schylling Associates takes a different approach.

"Selling 10,000 pieces is a success for us," Jack Schylling says. "We don't try to hit home runs. We try to hit singles."

That strategy has paid off. For the past 10 years, the privately held company has often reported double-digit growth. Sales have gone from $4 million in 1990 to $20 million last year.

Shortly after graduating from Harvard in 1972, he became a fund-raiser for his alma mater. Bored, he was looking out his office window one day when he spotted a street vendor peddling a mechanical bird in Harvard Square.

Schylling bought two of the rubber-band powered birds, then contacted the French manufacturer so that he could begin selling them at $5 apiece.

The bird seemed magical. Once people saw it in flight they wanted to buy it. Business got so good that Schylling recruited his younger brother David to help out.

Jack Schylling is not keen on toys that need batteries. He also harbors a prejudice against plastic. Toys made of wood and tin are what he likes.

Thanks to aging baby boomers, old-fashioned toys are enjoying a bit of a comeback.

Outsourcing such toys has become the Schyllings' forte.

"Our criteria for making toys is very subjective: If we like it, we make it," says Jack Schylling.

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