He’s one of the most successful businessmen on the planet and has the gong to prove it, but chances are you’ve never heard of Manny Stul – even though he lives right here in Melbourne.
Co-owner of Cheltenham-based Moose Toys, Manny was named World Entrepreneur of the Year in 2016 – the first Australian to receive the accolade – and this year he debuted on the Forbes list of world billionaires with a estimated wealth of $US1.4 billion.
It’s a fortune partly built on 2.5-centimetre-tall plastic collectable characters called Shopkins, which sell for less than $2 apiece.
The tiny toys, modelled on grocery and department store items, were the brainchild of Manny’s wife and Moose director Jacqui Tobias. Since hitting the market in 2014, they have become the currency of children around the globe, selling an astonishing 900 million units.
Then there are the myriad brand extensions, including a Shopkins YouTube channel with more than a billion views, live theatre productions and a second Shopkins movie due for release later this year.
When Manny bought Moose in 2000 – after selling out of the successful Perth giftware company he founded and ran for many years – it had just 10 employees. It now has more than 300 and distributes to more than 100 countries.
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The son of Polish refugee parents who survived the Holocaust, Manny, now 68, spent the first four years of his life in refugee camps (first in Germany and, after arriving in Australia, outside Perth) and knows what it’s like to experience tough times.
He believes to be successful in business, innovation is “absolutely imperative”.
“It is important for companies to embrace the changes in technology and not ignore them,” he says.
His advice to budding entrepreneurs is to “find a niche in the market and do things differently”.
“Make sure you love what you do and be ambitious,” he says. “Think globally. Do not be motivated by money alone; money should be a side benefit of doing something you love.”
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He says it’s also imperative to surround yourself with great people. “Have the right people in the right seats. Remain disciplined in thought and action and always treat people with honesty and integrity.”
Manny, who shares the company’s leadership and ownership with Jacqui and his stepson Paul Solomon, has created a home away from home for talented team members from around the world in an office that looks as much like a playground as the headquarters of a successful global company.
There’s a tree-house meeting room at the top of a beanstalk, a basketball court and a restored DC-3 plane in which staff Skype colleagues in the US every morning. “We created a culture of creativity and an environment where staff can enjoy and be proud of what they do each day,” Manny says.
He is equally proud of the company’s philanthropy, giving to communities in Australia and around the globe. “Giving back is part of our DNA,” he says.
As Moose Toys has taken on – and beaten – global toy behemoths such as Mattel and Lego, it has maintained its headquarters in Melbourne. Rather than lamenting the tyranny of distance, Manny says he feels “incredibly lucky” to be based here.
“Being removed from where most other toy companies are located gives us space to innovate and create our own intellectual property without feeling the pressure to follow trends,” he says.
The Aussie difference helped Moose when it decided to go direct to retail in the US.
“Last year we won supplier of the year from Walmart, Target and Toys R Us, which together make up 70 per cent of the US toy market,” Manny says.
“What began as a sizeable challenge to upscale has proven to be one of the best decisions we have made in establishing a strong global business.”
The Down Under spirit also came into play in 2007, when the Chinese manufacturers of one of the company’s popular craft products, Bindeez, substituted ingredients from a non-toxic substance for one that, when ingested, became the ecstasy-like drug gamma-hydroxybutyrate, also known as GHB.
“The factory substituted a chemical without our knowledge and it resulted in a worldwide recall,” Manny says.
“The company was able to stay operational [but] it was a very difficult time, especially given that we had to come to 34 individual agreements.”
Manny says by maintaining transparency and integrity throughout the process, the company managed to avert disaster and was able to forge even closer relationships with distributors and retailers.
From humble beginnings, Moose Toys is now consistently among the world’s top-selling toy companies. Its array of successful lines includes Little Live Pets and Shopkins spin-off Shoppies.
“Shopkins has certainly been a highlight,” Manny says. “What began as a collectable line of tiny inanimate objects has turned into a fully fledged global franchise.”