Meet the Toy Master: legendary salesman Roger Dyson talks about his long career in toys and games
Roger Dyson, thank you SO much for joining us. During your long career, it seems you’ve sold every kind of toy product in every kind of toy company! But what did you do before you came into the industry?
When I left school I had no wish to work for a bank, insurance company or local government, which is what many of my friends chose to do. I had no idea what I actually wanted to do but had to find a job which, thankfully, in 1964 wasn’t too difficult. I joined a company called William Bradnum; a fruit and vegetable wholesaler on Cardiff Fruit Market.
In a short time, I became a junior salesman selling flowers. In selling, I found my vocation if not my ideal job! Working on a wholesale fruit market involved very early mornings. We started at six in the morning – sunshine, rain or snow. Those early-mornings start conflicting with your lifestyle in one’s mid-to-late teens, though…
Time to move on?
Sadly, yes. I spent the summer at camping exhibitions selling equipment and had a ball, but I had to find something more permanent. I successfully applied for a job as a Trainee Sales Representative at J&L Randall – Merit Toys – in Potters Bar, North London. That meant moving away from home but I decided that the grass was greener…
This is great! I have nothing but time for people that start out in hard-graft sales. On the surface, though, there wouldn’t seem to be much connection between selling flowers – or camping equipment, for that matter – and selling toys and games. What did you learn from those jobs that later came in useful?
Selling is selling! To me, the skills are the same whatever one’s selling and whoever one’s selling to. I guess what I learned from selling flowers and camping equipment was that I had the ability and self confidence to sell to pretty much anyone. I sold camping equipment to the public and flowers to some of the toughest negotiators I ever met in my life. I’ve met some tough toy buyers, but no one as tough as the fruit and vegetable wholesalers that were a key part of our customer base in the flower business.
So, you joined Merit Toys. How long were you there?
I was at Merit Toys for marginally over six years. My job title was Trainee Sales Representative – but that could be translated into ‘general dogsbody’! There were always several of us and we basically did pretty much anything that was asked of us. Picking, packing, delivering and general office duties. One’s sales training was being sent to South East London to try to sell to lapsed accounts. But I was lucky!
Before me, everyone had to use public transport – I was at least given a car. A car that I badly mistreated, let me add! But from there, I progressed to covering sales areas when the salesman was away for one reason or another. And as a single guy, travelling the country really suited me. I was having a ball again! Well, anyway, as you may know The Toy Fair – in those days – was in Brighton. Merit Toys used to have their showroom in the Metropole Hotel…
Through a piece of good luck, I had a very successful Toy Fair. I took a very large export order – huge for those days – that moved my career onwards as I was requested to make an export trip to Gibraltar, Tangier, Casablanca, Rabat, Gran Canaria, Tripoli and Malta… Not an itinerary of a 21st Century international salesman!
No! And when is this, roughly?
This would be around 1971. Anyway, I was successful enough to be asked to repeat the trip the following year, but with added destinations: Algiers, Tunis and Benghazi. By this time, I’d met my wife-to-be, Pamela. Pamela lived in Caerphilly and, at that time, many of my friends in North London were also getting married and moving away, so I knew my time with Merit Toys was coming to an end and looked for a job back in Wales.
I’m loving the detail, Roger! Who was in Wales?
Airfix! So my next job was as their Territory Sales Representative. I joined in January 1973 first selling games and crafts and later Airfix Kits. It was at Airfix I first met my good friend Alun Munn, who – like me – still stays involved in the business. Just under three years later, I was approached to join Palitoy…
My God, you’ve got some names on your CV!
I’ve been very lucky, yes! And at that time, Palitoy was by far the most successful toy company; really amazing. They were setting up new divisions; one selling games the other – Mainline Railways – was model trains. But we had so many strong brands… Action Man was the biggest but also Tiny Tears, Girl’s World, Pippa and Parker Games to mention just a few. Three years on, I was lucky enough to be part of the launch of Star Wars. We were taken to see the film – very much a soft launch – in a cinema in Birmingham. And I knew I’d seen a phenomenon, one with which I’d be involved for the remainder of my toy career.
There’s probably a whole separate interview about the Star Wars chapter of Palitoy…
I think I could probably write a book on it, actually; those days at Palitoy – and how things changed.
I’d advanced through the ranks, becoming Area Manager, then Regional Manager. But then the senior management changed completely. Peter Waterman became MD. Peter came from Procter & Gamble and – in joining the toy industry – found himself in an alien environment. He soon changed the whole of the senior management team. I survived only because Regional Manager was just below the ‘senior’ level. In any case, I moved on to become Senior National Accounts Manager – and once again was in my element selling rather than managing salesmen.
Eventually, Palitoy became Kenner-Parker as our owners, General Mills, decided to spin off their toy businesses. Although I was never entirely comfortable at Kenner-Parker, a toy-man in a grocery environment, I did have some great times and worked with some great people: Nick Austin, John Barbour and Kevin Jones are still great friends. I was also lucky enough to be involved in the huge Star Wars years following the release of Return of the Jedi…
And you were there for Trivial Pursuit, presumably?
Trivial Pursuit, yes! In fact, I was the first person in the UK to sell Trivial Pursuit. I was also involved in the initial launch of Care Bears. I knew, however, that the Kenner-Parker environment wasn’t for me and I’d have to move on… So in January 1986, I started as Sales Manager at Ertl (UK) Ltd, a little-known toy company with its head office in Iowa, USA. But things were pretty tough!
In what way?
All our licensed products were dying, and we were very much number two in the UK farm-toy business behind Britains Petite. We did have one potential winner, though: Thomas & Friends die cast. I’d been progressing through the ranks – although there was no real opposition – and eventually became Sales Director, then Sales and Marketing Director, then Managing Director.
When was this, sorry?
This would’ve been 1988. And on becoming MD, I contacted Robert Mann, with whom I worked at Palitoy. I offered him the Sales and Marketing role. Rob and I then set about making Ertl an important brand in the UK toy industry. Later, on becoming Vice President for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, I inherited Steve Markey… He’d just joined the company as Export Manager for Europe and soon became Export Director.
For several years at Ertl, we had a ball… We developed some great products and sourced some great toys from our US parent and third parties. We built a new warehouse and office facility, we improved our farm-toy range to challenge Britains Petite, we had a great team of sales agents and office staff… We were hugely profitable, and our international business was growing. I was then instrumental in the purchase of our biggest competitor in the farm-toy business Britains Petite.
If you can’t beat them, buy them?!
Something like that! As often happens in our industry, though, just when everything in the garden looked rosy, the unexpected happened. My boss, through many of our most successful years, was toy trade legend Rich Thompson. When Rich retired, I successfully applied for his job as Senior Vice President International. Unfortunately, there was a proviso: I had to move to Iowa. That was never going to happen, so from then on I was toast! A most unfortunate end to my career with Ertl.
Oh! That’s a shame; sounds like you put your heart and soul into it.
I did! In any case, I then spent a few months as a consultant for MV Sports, and almost a year as MD of Ideal Toys. Then Ideal Toys was sold to Toybrokers which was owned by my good friend Peter Brennan. I spent six months working for Peter, integrating Ideal into Toybrokers. Then I joined Toymaster, where I worked for almost 20 years. In fact, I’m still involved in the toy business as a non-executive director of Toymaster.
What an astonishing career. Thank you, Roger, for going into so much detail. Hearing all that, I’m curious to ask… What’s the real secret, do you think, to selling toys and games?
I don’t think there is any secret in selling toys and games! I think it’s important to recognise that there’s a huge selection of toys and games available, probably about 60,000 current products… No one’s ever going to stock that many. There’s also a huge amount of duplication – or maybe choice… So my view is that identifying the best route to market for particular products, or product categories, is really the key.
Fantastic! Looking at the current landscape, how might the industry adapt to cope with some of the challenges it’s facing?
The toy industry need no advice from me on how to adapt and move forward! It’s been doing that successfully ever since I joined it in 1966. The best example of that is the biggest threat to the toy industry is ‘Children are getting older younger’…
Just look at how LEGO’s countered that threat. They’ve designed toys for older children and adults. And its not just LEGO… Many other toy companies have done the same. Talking to toy retailers, I understand more Pokemon cards are sold to adults than children, and I’d guess as many Marvel figures – to name just one action-figure category – are sold to adult collectors as are sold to children.
So, the industry continues to adapt and grow the toy market, despite the challenges… The changing retail landscape, ever-changing toy-safety regulations, criticism of packaging and plastic toys, and consistently changing legislation. Toys play a key part of a child’s development; good toys, games and puzzles enhance that development and are an important part of growing up – they contribute greatly in children’s interaction with both adults and peers.
Great answer, thank you. Outside sales, you’ve been a key figure at the BTHA… And were Toy Fair Committee Chairman when UK Toy Fair moved from ExCeL to Olympia. It’s been said that this move, and I quote, “…saved the event from the threat of extinction.” How so?
I think “extinction” is probably over egging the pudding, but there’s no doubt we were facing a difficult time holding the Toy Fair at ExCeL. In retrospect, moving to ExCeL in the first place was our biggest mistake, although the move was made with the best of intentions for the industry as a whole.
But yes, moving back to Olympia significantly contributed to the ongoing success of Toy Fair. I most certainly can’t take the credit, though! The heavy lifting was done by Natasha Crookes who was Toy Fair Organiser at the time, ably assisted by her team and the rest of the management and staff at the BTHA. We also ‘got lucky’ – ExCeL broke their contract with the BTHA by allowing The Boat Show to change their dates, which meant they were overlapping with us.
Is that right? I didn’t know that…
Yes, and The Boat Show was the gorilla! In comparison, we were a minion… But by breaking the contract, ExCeL enabled the BTHA to look for alternative venues. Natasha and her team negotiated an excellent deal to return to Olympia. Although, of course, Natasha and I did suffer the wrath of ExCeL’s management when we informed them we were we moving the Toy Fair away from their venue.
Water under the bridge, now, I hope? In any case, the BTHA must hold you in very high regard: in 2017, they gave you a Lifetime Achievement Award. How meaningful was that?
I believe only about 30 people have received a BTHA Lifetime Achievement Award… I’m proud and honoured to have been considered worthy of such an honour, and to be among such a select group of toy industry stalwarts.
What’s keeping you busy now, Roger? And what’s next?
I’m pleased to be able to continue to be involved in the toy business through my involvement with Toymaster, so I shall be at Toy Fair at the end of January. I try to play golf as often as I can… Unfortunately, it’s rained solidly since Christmas in Caerphilly so that’s been a lot less than I’d have liked. I also like to play bridge so I belong to a Bridge Club – and if it keeps raining I will have to join another as well! I’m a grandparent which brings it’s own blessings and responsibilities, and I enjoy walking – but not in the rain.
Sounds like the rain’s putting the mockers on a lot of fun! We need to start wrapping things up, but before we do, which one question should I have asked you today that I didn’t?
Given my time again, would I have chosen a career in the toy business?
Lovely! And would you?
Finally then, Roger, what’s the most interesting object in your office or on your desk?
A Harrogate International Toy Fair 40th Anniversary 1989 dish. It’s embossed with the Coat of Arms and with the legend “To be of Service”… Which I mis-use by putting odd coins and any other paraphernalia on!
Brilliant. Thank you Roger – this has been a great pleasure.
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