Editor’s Note: Chief Executive is kicking off a new annual tradition this year by celebrating every sizable (over $100 million in annual revenues) standalone company turning 100 in 2023. Check out the rest of this year’s class for tips, insights and, above all else, the inspiration you need to keep going….and going.
CONSUMER TOYS, GAMES AND ENTERTAINMENT
HQ: Pawtucket, Rhode Island
Revenues: $5.86 billion
One hundred years ago, three Polish emigrants, brothers Henry, Hilal and Herman Hassenfeld, began selling cloth remnants used for pencil box covers and pouches for school supplies. After incorporating their business as Hassenfeld Brothers in 1926, the company made pencils and pencil cases. Children were the market, but it wasn’t until the early 1940s under the Hasbro trade name that the brothers made their first toys, modeling clay and doctor and nurse kits.
Business took off after the 1952 introduction of Mr. Potato Head, initially released as an assortment of different plastic ears, eyes, nose, mouth, pants and shoes that children could stick into a real potato. Invented by George Lerner, it was the first toy advertised in a TV commercial aimed directly at children. The following year, Mrs. Potato Head made her debut; Brother Spud and Sister Yam soon followed. Today, the toys are marketed as Potato Head, the honorific removed.
Hasbro’s mission is to create the world’s best play experiences, delivering joy, creativity and connection. Most of its toys have done just that, notwithstanding a few bumps. In 1964, Hasbro released G.I. Joe as an “action figure,” essentially a doll geared toward boys. The toy featured 19 points of articulation that simulated the moving parts of the human body and came with a uniform and accessories. To temper parental concerns over a toy that included weapons like a bazooka and a flamethrower, Henry Hassenfeld, Hasbro CEO at the time, told a reporter that G.I. Joe “represents a civilizing rather than a destructive force.”
This purpose may have influenced the redesign of G.I. Joe during the Vietnam War into an adventure doll with prowess in the martial arts. Still, G.I. Joe’s popularity waxed and waned with anti-war sentiment, and Hasbro’s hit toy went off and then back on the market twice before being relaunched for good in 1982 as a reimagined anti-terrorist commando. It’s remained in production ever since.
Other challenges surfaced after the 1963 introduction of Flubber, a gooey polymer allegedly causing rashes and sore throats. Although no direct linkage was discovered, the company voluntarily recalled the product. “We want to be 100 percent certain of the safety and health of our children,” then-CEO Merrill Hassenfeld, Henry’s son, said.
Other wrong turns included a nursery franchise for working mothers and branded cookware, both in the 1970s. Following the successful introductions of the My Little Pony and Transformers toy lines in 1983 and 1984, and the acquisition of competitor Milton Bradley Company in 1984, Hasbro moved past Mattel to become the world’s biggest toy company, a position today held by Lego.
Subsequent acquisitions included Parker Brothers (makers of Monopoly), Kenner Products (Easy- Bake Oven) and Tonka (trucks). The 1999 acquisition of Wizards of the Coast, a publisher of science fiction and fantasy games, delivered Pokemon game cards and Dungeons & Dragons to the product lineup. The company’s former president, Chris Cocks, was appointed Hasbro’s CEO in 2022.
As movies based on toy characters took hold in the new millennium, Hasbro Studios was formed to produce shows based on Transformers, G.I. Joe and My Little Pony, among others. Furthering its motion picture and television ambitions was the acquisition of Entertainment One, Ltd. in 2019. It’s currently up for sale along with the rest of what Cocks told The Verge in March 2023 was “a fairly large chunk of the film and television division.”
“Big and beloved as the brands are at Hasbro, at the end of the day we’re a product company.… Our products inherently have an emotional connection to people. They create a kind of joy.” They did for him as a boy. “Transformers and G.I. Joe were my favorite action figures.”