Collector turns love of 'Star Wars' into business

 

Winona Daily News

The inspiration behind Brian Semling's 20-year-old Fountain City, Wisconsin, business came at an unlikely time — during a visit to a friend's house to watch "Return of the Jedi."

Fifteen years old at the time, he hadn't seen the movie since it came out in theaters nearly a decade earlier. He loved it.

After they watched, he recalled looking over his friend's extensive Masters of the Universe toy collection. As they did, Semling began to question where all of his Star Wars toys went — and soon remembered the answer.

He'd sold them all at a garage sale at age 10.

He wanted to get some back. He began to collect, seeking a connection with those childhood memories.

"I'd forgotten how cool I thought it was, and how much fun I'd had with the toys when I was a kid," he told the Winona Daily News (http://bit.ly/VT12QR ). "It's funny — if I hadn't given away those toys, I may not have become so interested in collecting."

It was a good thing he did.

Semling, 37, doesn't play with toys much anymore.

In the 20-plus years that followed his realization, he has transformed his collecting hobby into a successful family business — Brian's Toys — which sells new and vintage toys and collectibles to buyers in more than 100 countries around the world.

He brought in $5 million in sales in the last year alone, and is now planning for a future where selling toys may only be a small portion of what he does.

But he started small.

About a year-and-a-half after he started collecting as a junior in high school, he decided to start a mail-order business out of his parents' basement and garage.

A natural extension of his collecting hobby, he saw it a chance to make a bit of extra cash for college.

Soon he discovered a potential to make real money.

He took out ads in collector magazines, exhibited at toy shows. With help from his parents, Norm and Betsy, and brother, Joe, he'd spend entire weekends as a teen buying, selling and trading and staying up until the early morning pricing toys and staying up with the books.

The summer after his freshman year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he was faced with a dilemma. He was hesitant to take more time away from the business, yet he wasn't ready to leave MIT.

So he headed back to school, flying home Thursdays to spend the weekend running the business. In a matter of weeks, he realized couldn't do both. In October 1996 he transferred to Winona State University, and committed fully to growing and developing the business.

"I worked hard at it, and it grew through that hard work," Semling said. "I thought, how much more could it grow if I worked at it full-time?"

It paid off.

In the years since Semling's return to Winona, the business has continued to expand.

In staff — he now has about 20 people working for him, many of whom are WSU students or graduates.

In size— the main office is now on the estate of Semling's great-grandparents, Joseph and Elizabeth, just off of state Highway 35 in Fountain City. Semling also utilizes two other warehouses in Winona, as well as space in the Winona Occupational Rehabilitation Center for warehousing and fulfillment.

And in merchandise — The business has grown and diversified, now selling a wide range of toys from the likes of Hasbro, Mattel, LEGO, Play-Doh. Ten years ago, Star Wars accounted for 90 percent of sales; now it has fallen to about 30 percent.

Semling still has his own personal toy collection, and he still gets excited when he sees a particularly rare item come in through the warehouse. Like the 1978 Darth Vader action figure sealed in its original packaging that brought in $30,000 last year — the most expensive vintage toy he has sold so far.

But these days, Semling is more focused on preparing business for the future.

His team is working on a mobile app, scheduled for release in August, which will allow collectors to generate an inventory list by simply scanning the bar codes on original toy packaging. He's also revamping his website.

While the business is now almost completely about selling toys, he envisions a future where that will shift as he turns his attention to other online services and applications.

Yet, the core aspects of the business haven't changed. It's still a family affair — his parents, now retired, assist part-time. His wife, Carina, helps with payroll. Even his two young children — Sonja, 7, and Erik, 4 — are happy to help out here and there. They both say they want to work with their dad when they grow up.

Semling said he's careful not to push them in that direction, but the fact that he works with toys certainly doesn't hurt the sell, he admitted.

His goal, he said, is simple:

"To build a business of lasting value while having fun along the way."

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Online:

Brian's Toys: http://www.brianstoys.com

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Information from: Winona Daily News, http://www.winonadailynews.com

An AP Member Exchange Feature shared by Winona Daily News

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