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A conversation with Mattel CEO Bob Eckert

September 8, 2010 |  3:58 pm

It’s been a decade since Bob Eckert left his post as chief executive of Kraft Foods Inc. to become CEO of Mattel Inc. But employees at the toy maker’s El Segundo headquarters still fondly remember Eckert’s first day on the job, when the Midwest native strolled into the building’s cafeteria wearing his badge and announced that he wanted to improve the culture of Mattel and focus on “people development.”Bobeckert

In a recent interview from his office -- which, with months to go before the holidays, was already flooded with the company’s classic Barbie dolls and other toys -- Eckert reflected on his first 10 years at the world’s largest toy maker, the toy industry today and what he’s brought to Mattel.

“We’re probably more disciplined than we used to be,” he said. “Disciplined financially and how we think strategically and how we do things. We’re not a company that just throws spaghetti against the wall if you will, and hope that kids like our toys. We’re pretty thoughtful about everything we do.”

Measured since the end of May 2000, the month Eckert took over, through last Friday Mattel's shares gave investors a "total return" -- price gain plus dividend income -- of 95%. By contrast, the blue-chip Standard & Poor's 500 index had a negative total return of about 10% in that period.

During Eckert’s tenure, Mattel has expanded its career management and development, including offering online leadership classes, inviting guest speakers to its headquarters and using a formal, structured assessment system for employees.

“The idea of shaping a culture instead of being just a product of the culture was very appealing to me,” he said. “I don’t think people 10 years ago would have associated a toy company with that kind of commitment of resources to develop people.”

And despite the so-called age-compression phenomenon in the toy industry today -- in which kids are seemingly getting older at a younger age and have more entertainment options vying for their attention -- Eckert said he’s more optimistic than ever about the industry.

“When I think about the toy industry 10 years ago, we were a little defensive: Yes, kids are getting older younger, but they’re still going to play with toys,” he said. “Now it’s 10 years later in the toy industry and we don’t talk about that anymore. The toy industry is ... where brands are developed; people are taking toy brands and making entertainment properties out of them.... We’re not going to go away.”

-- Andrea Chang

Photo: Bob Eckert. Credit: Mattel Inc.