Business Monday

Meet some of South Florida’s dollmakers

Samples of dolls designed and created by JC Toys Group, Inc, photographed at their warehouse in Doral, on March 03.
Samples of dolls designed and created by JC Toys Group, Inc, photographed at their warehouse in Doral, on March 03. pportal@miamiherald.com

Early this year on “Shark Tank,” a Homestead couple who makes a multicultural line of dolls made a bid for the big time. Appearing on the nationally broadcast show, Angelica and Jason Sweeting made their case as to why the millionaire investors should help stake Naturally Perfect Dolls.

And in accepting a $200,000 offer from Daymond John to help grow their company, they’ve helped put a spotlight on doll-making and related businesses in South Florida.

Not that the region is a particularly well-known hub for dollmakers or toy manufacturers — as of now. The toy business globally, and dolls’ part in it, are booming. According to the U.S. Toy Industry Association (TIA), the global toy market tops $87 billion. In the U.S., the toy market grew by 5 percent in 2016, exceeding $20 billion. Dolls accounted for a $2.8 billion share of the market in 2016, a 1 percent increase over the year before — and were among the fast-growing toy categories worldwide.

In Florida, as in the rest of the country, 97.7 percent of toy manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors are small businesses, according to TIA. Automation gives major toy manufacturers an edge over the small players like the ones in Florida, allowing them to bring toy products to the masses faster than the average small business owner.

But even big players struggle in the hyper-competitive industry.

For instance, worldwide gross sales for American Girl Brands, makers of American Girl products, remained flat at $570.8 million in 2016, according to Kidscreen, a trade publication serving kids’ entertainment executives. (To bolster its bottom line, late last year, Mattel Inc., which owns the brand, began selling American Girl dolls — some of which retail for more than $100 — in Toys ‘R’ Us stores. And in February, American Girl’s “Logan Everett” boy doll went on sale.)

“The toy industry is important to the economic landscape in Florida,” said Orlando Espinosa, an instructor for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Emerging Leaders Initiative, designed to help small businesses around the country flourish.

“When you consider that almost all of the businesses in Florida that are part of this industry are small, many of them mom-and-pop, you can see how vital this sector is for our state,” Espinosa said.

There are just a handful — the exact number in South Florida isn’t available — of dollmakers and related businesses in South Florida. Their products, goals and strategies vary widely, but if there’s a common thread, it’s found in the attempt to reach a specific market or niche. Among the businesses:

▪ Ed and Crissi Boland started Whimzy Entertainment — makers of HeroBoys superhero action figures — last year in their space at Venture Hive in Miami. HeroBoys is a line of comics and toys for young boys. The startup’s signature item is an 18-inch plush/plastic hero, and related comic books provide fun superhero stories.

▪ Rosanna Hope Bernstein of Surfside, a leukemia survivor, created “Bee Brave Buddies” for young cancer patients last year. The dolls are bald, and the girl dolls have a big bow headband, the boys a little ball cap. Her company, which partners with pediatric oncology hospitals, among others, has received nonprofit status.

▪ For over 35 years, Evelyn Gigante repaired collectible dolls at her business, Dixie Doll Shop, in Oakland Park before retiring. Gigante turned a hobby she started when her kids were little into a full-fledged business in 1979.

Here’s a further look at some South Florida dollmakers who are trying to make their mark.

NATURALLY PERFECT DOLLS

An unsettling incident led Jason Sweeting to eventually create his own business, forging a path in a highly competitive industry while embracing diversity and niche markets to meet customer demand.

“My daughter came home from an event one day and told us that she hated how she looked,” Sweeting said. “As her dad, I was crushed for my daughter. She told us that all the princess dolls at the event had yellow hair and white skin. We had always praised our girls and worked hard to instill confidence in them, but at that moment, we realized that we need to bring diversity to the toy aisle.”

But neither Sweeting nor his wife, Angelica, had experience designing or manufacturing dolls: Sweeting is a musician and Angelica was a grants writer before quitting her job in 2015 to devote herself full time to the business.

“You could say we were really accidental entrepreneurs,” Sweeting said. “We didn’t intend to start a doll-making business, but once we made up our minds that we had to do this for our daughters, we went at it 100 percent to make it successful.”

While developing their company, Naturally Perfect Dolls, the couple spent weeks surveying toy aisles at major department stores, looking for dolls with fuller lips, darker skin and hair the same texture as their young daughters. The Sweetings had no luck finding what they were looking for and took to Kickstarter in 2015 to raise $25,000 to start a company that designed and manufactured dolls that reflected women of color. They raised more than $80,000 through the campaign.

“We understood there were other doll lines out there with diverse products,” Sweeting said. “But we didn’t find anything like Naturally Perfect Dolls.”

So while South Florida isn’t particularly well-known as a hub for toy manufacture and design, the Sweetings proceeded to try and learn everything they could about how the doll industry works, researching the market and the pitfalls other entrepreneurs faced. “For example, one of the things we noticed about the dolls on the mar ket now is that the hair is one of the first things to go bad. The textures weren’t realistic. And washing it didn’t fix the problem.”

Now, the company is still small, but it continues to grow and Sweeting is happy with the result: “We feel the line embraces the beautiful features of women of color better than what’s out there now. ... With Naturally Perfect Dolls, our hair textures are true to women of color and you can easily wash and style the hair without worrying about it going bad and ruining the experience of styling a doll’s hair for the person who owns it.”

When the Sweetings’ Kickstarter campaign exceeded its goal, it allowed the couple to produce the first 1,000 dolls.

Then the Sweetings set their sights on another goal — pitching the investors on the ABC reality show “Shark Tank” to get a deal to expand the line and increase production. After trying out three times with no success, the couple caught the eye of the show’s producers at an audition in Glendale, California, last June.

Ultimately, the couple struck a deal with investor John, founder of the FUBU clothing brand. John invested $200,000 in Naturally Perfect Dolls for a 30 percent stake in the company. Each doll retails for $84.99.

“We’ve spent a lot of time strategizing with Daymond, who is always in Miami,” Sweeting said. “He’s very hands-on. Right now, we’re planning what the future of the business looks like and how we’re going to scale and be in every toy aisle, so it’s an exciting time.”

Their biggest challenge as business owners? The couple wants to learn everything they can about the business of dolls. But it can be a difficult balance with two kids in tow.

“Getting into this industry has been an interesting experience,” Sweeting said. “We are definitely learning a lot and looking forward to our next phase as a company. Hopefully you’ll find us in toy aisles everywhere very soon.”

MARU AND FRIENDS

At Maru and Friends in Little Havana, founder Maritza Gutierrez has been collecting dolls ever since she can remember. But finding diverse dolls that reflected Latina features was always a challenge until 2008 when Gutierrez created a line of dolls inspired by the diverse features of Latina, Asian and African-American children from around the world.

Gutierrez, a Cuban native, fled the country when she was 5, traveling first to Spain and then to the United States, without her parents, to start a new life in Miami. Through those tumultuous times, her passion for dolls remained constant.

“I’ve always been an avid doll collector,” said Gutierrez, who developed the company with her own money. “I have over 600 dolls in my collection, and I believe a doll can be a best friend or a role model for a young girl.

“They can instill confidence or inspire creativity in a child and while major toy manufacturers have embraced that concept, they haven’t been so quick to embrace diversity. That’s where I think the story of Maru and Friends fills a void. I think it’s relatable to many people. Maru is a child who is an immigrant and comes to America without her parents and she’s trying to fit into a world that is very new to her. She meets her friends, the other dolls in the line, on her journey in America.”

There are 10 products in the Maru and Friends line — six full-size dolls that are 20 inches tall, including a boy named Chad. The line also features four smaller dolls called “Mini-Pals” that are 13 inches tall.

Since 2008, the Maru and Friends line has expanded with a retail location on Southwest Eighth Street in Little Havana, another in Miami International Airport’s North Terminal, a line of doll clothing and furniture and an educational book series designed to help children embrace diversity and encourage self-acceptance.

“Our dolls are designed and produced here in Little Havana,” Gutierrez said. “We have an amazing artist, Dianna Effner, who designs the dolls. The dolls are made of vinyl, not porcelain, and we’re selling several thousand of them annually. We handle our order fulfillment here locally as well.”

A couple of the dolls in the line come with an illustrated, hardcover storybook called “The Forever Friends.” The book details Maru’s history and her adventures. Dolls range from $89 to $120. Gutierrez plans to focus on expanding the educational component of her business creating custom content for diverse audiences based on the Maru and Friends line.

“For the next phase of Maru and Friends, we are working to create unique educational content that promotes the message of diversity and fostering friendship with other cultures,” Gutierrez said. “But we want to make sure the content we create also has broad appeal.”

Her biggest challenge as a business owner in the toy industry? Not having enough time to spend with her granddaughter.

“I work a lot,” Gutierrez said. “But one of the things I treasure is spending time with my granddaughter, so I have to make sure I make that a priority.”

JC TOYS GROUP INC.

JC Toys has been designing, manufacturing and distributing collectible dolls and accessories since 1982. The company is owned by Juan Cerda, whose family comes from Castalla, Spain. His son Richard, is the company’s vice president.

“My family has been making dolls in Spain for decades,” Cerda said. “Each doll is designed by Salvador Berenguer. The Berenguer family has been sculpting dolls in Castalla since the 1940s. We were able to work with them to create the dolls and today Berenguer is the exclusive designer of JC Toys.”

The dolls are manufactured abroad at company-owned plants in China and Spain. Order fulfillment, marketing and customer service is handled at the company’s world headquarters in Miami.

“We do it all,” Cerda said. “We design, manufacture and distribute our dolls and toys. We also own our plants, so we don’t use third parties to make our products. This gives us the ability to conduct rigorous quality control.”

Dolls retail from $4.99 to $149.99.

Globally, the company employs approximately 750 employees.

In addition to selling its products online, JC Toys distributes to big-box retailers like Walmart, Toys ‘R’ Us and Target.com. The company also makes dolls and accessories for Learning Express franchises in South Florida.

On the web

Baby Abuelita: http://www.babyabuelita.com

(Website is in transition.)

Bee Brave Buddies: beebravebuddies.com/index.html

HeroBoys (Whimzy Entertainment): http://www.heroboys.com/

JC Toys: www.JCToys.com

Maru and Friends: www.maruandfriends.com

Naturally Perfect Dolls: https://naturally-perfect-dolls.myshopify.com/collections/all.

Whatever happened to

Baby Abuelita?

Until last year, Miami-based Baby Abuelita Productions produced cuddly, plush grandparent characters that propelled its success. When you press their hands, the dolls sing traditional Spanish lullabies. They were one part of a business model that included a line of musical books — the characters were even featured in a math textbook produced by education giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt — and eventually aimed to create a children’s television sales using “Baby Abuelita” characters to drive sales.

The dolls themselves — “Abuelito Pancho,” “Abuelita Rosa” and others — were introduced at Cuba Nostalgia in May 2005, were immediately popular and sold out in a few hours. The company received many plaudits and was a second-place winner in the Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge in 2005.

“That was very exciting,” recalls Carol Fenster, one of the partners of the company, about the company’s initial reception who was then a novice in the industry. “But there’s the reality of what the financial piece of it is. It’s really hard work. You have to be really committed.”

Along the way, she and her partners found that it was prohibitively expensive to make the dolls domestically but that it was still expensive to work with overseas suppliers. “When you manufacture in China, you have to have economies of scale, a minimum order and spend significant money on safety testing [of the dolls]. You have to bring the product over and have to have a warehouse,” she said.

Once she had learned more about the business, including working with a mentor, “we got into Walmart and Target instead of the specialty route, and we went the mass-market route. But you have to spend that much more money on inventory, and there’s more pressure. They want something new all the time. They want you to advertise. There are just a lot of challenges.”

In 2008-09 — during the recession — the company did over a million dollars in business, and sold tens of thousands of dolls. But in 2016, the latest licensing deal ended and the product was discontinued in big-box stores. (For the past five years, the company did not sell directly but licensed the rights to another company.) That was a 12-year run for the dolls, a record that Fenster is proud of.

The company had also produced a DVD and developed digital content, with less success. Those were undermined “when the bottom fell out of the DVD market,” Fenster said. That prompted a reevaluation of the company’s strategy and the ever-shifting modes of digital communication. Now Baby Abuelita is looking to repurpose its digital content to create games and apps, Fenster said.

RORY CLARKE

What’s next?

What’s next for the toy industry in 2017?

The U.S. Toy Industry Association predicts smart toys, including dolls that recognize their owners’ faces, will grow in popularity this year. Toys that offer high-tech learning experiences will be popular with a surge in drones, virtual pets and products based in augmented and virtual reality, as toymakers continue to successfully leverage technology to boost traditional play.

The TIA forecasts future growth in the market for S.T.E.M. toys, too. Toys that can be used to teach critical skills like problem-solving and critical thinking will continue to increase in popularity in 2017 as parents look for new and innovative ways to empower their children through learning.

TASHA CUNNINGHAM

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