In Memoriam, 2011
In 2011, the toy industry lost an icon when Elliot Handler, founder of Mattel, Inc., the world’s largest toy company and well-known as the creator of the Hot Wheels® mega-brand, died at the age of 95.
With his wife Ruth Handler by his side, Elliot created a home-based business which transformed the largest global toy company, with a rich portfolio of popular brands beloved by generations of children, including Hot Wheels, Barbie, Fisher-Price, and American Girl.
The Handlers started Mattel Creations in 1945 with Harold “Matt” Matson, whose name was fused with Elliot’s to form “Mattel.” Originally a small business enterprise headquartered in the Handlers’ garage in suburban Los Angeles, Calif., the company launched with three pieces of shop equipment purchased on installment from Sears.
The first Mattel products produced from that location were picture frames and dollhouse furniture made from picture frame scraps.
Elliot’s product development talents were complemented by Ruth’s marketing savvy, and the company turned a profit in its very first year. The Uke-A-Doodle, a child-size ukelele, was the first in a line of musical toys that gave Mattel its first ‘staple’ business. After the Uke-A-Doodle introduction in 1947, Matson sold his share of the business.
The Handlers soon shifted the company’s emphasis to toys. A popular jack-in-the-box followed the Uke-A-Doodle, and by 1955, the company was valued at $500,000.
In 1955, a television series produced by The Walt Disney Company called the “Mickey Mouse Club” was set to debut, and Disney and ABC Television asked if Mattel would consider sponsoring a 15-minute segment. The drawback was that Mattel would be obligated to sponsor the program for one 52-week season, which would cost Mattel $500,000¾nearly its entire net worth. The campaign was a success, and annual sales grew from $5 million to $14 million in just three years.
Advertising was one of two key decisions that the Handlers made which transformed Mattel from a profitable business into an industry leader. The other key turning point was the invention and marketing of a three-dimensional doll through which little girls could act out their dreams of growing up. An instant sensation upon its introduction in 1959, Barbie has since grown into a multi-billion dollar brand.
In the late 1960s, Mattel was in search of a toy that would capture boys’ imaginations the way that Barbie did for girls. Elliot had an idea for miniature die-cast vehicles that would incorporate speed, power and performance, as well as cool car designs. Introduced in 1968, Hot Wheels were distinguished with customized designs and became a number-one selling toy brand.
Known as the “whiz kids of the toy industry,” the Handlers were renowned for inventing some of the world’s best-known toy brands. In 1973, Elliot was named Mattel’s Chairman of the Board, a position he would share with Ruth until 1975 when, after having helped nurture Mattel from a dollhouse furniture shop into a leading manufacturer, the Handlers left the company after more than 30 years. Elliot and Ruth became the first living inductees to the Toy Industry Hall of Fame in 1989.