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April 2014
Invading Charlotte
By Sander Walker

     Don Rothwell’s flight had been airborne hardly 10 minutes before the toddler seated next to him lost interest in the plastic screwdriver his mother had brought along to serve as his in-flight entertainment. As the child’s restlessness grew, Rothwell quickly produced from his briefcase three zoo animal figurines and presented them to the boy and his mother as a gift.

     It worked like a charm. The youngster remained fascinated and occupied right through the landing. The executive vice president of Schleich USA, Inc., Rothwell says, “I never travel anywhere without a few of our signature figurines in my bag. They come in quite handy.” The scenario perfectly exemplifies the company’s registered motto: “Anywhere’s a playground.”

 

Bringing Their Playground to Charlotte

     Schleich was founded in Germany by Friedrich Schleich in 1935. The company started as a supplier to the plastics industry, but shortly thereafter Schleich invented the process for manufacturing those classic bendable-wire rubber toy characters (think Gumby and Pokey). As a result, the world-famous Schleich figurines first came on the market in the 1950s.

     Today the toys’ intricate design and painstaking hand-painting process—over 100 steps—has made them a favorite of both children and collectors in more than 50 countries around the world. As a global player with Swabian roots, the company is headquartered in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany; managing directors include Dr. Thomas van Kaldenkerken and Erich Schefold.

     In the 1980s, Schleich introduced their wildly popular animal figurines. Intended to be a realistic reflection of nature on a smaller scale, the quality and attention to detail is so striking that to label them toys seems somehow diminishing. Void of battery power or adjustable parts, these figurines rely on their uncanny realism to lure children into using their imaginations to create wonderful worlds of play with unlimited possibilities. The formula is clearly working as Schleich produces more than 50 million figurines a year.

     “Safety and quality control are our top priorities,” explains Rothwell. “We do everything in-house at our German headquarters from the design to the creation of special manufacturing tools.” The actual production process takes place in Germany, Moldavia, Tunisia and China, but Rothwell says it’s certainly not off the table to have at least some of the manufacturing in the United States one day.

     Charlotte became a big part of the Schleich story last year when the company relocated their North American headquarters from Ottawa in Ontario, Canada, to the Queen City. “The lion’s share of our business—about 85 percent—comes from the U.S., so it made sense to relocate here,” notes Rothwell.

     “During our site selection process we looked at multiple cities including Chicago, Los Angeles and Memphis, but ultimately there were several key factors that led to Charlotte being chosen as our new North American home.” One of those key factors was North Carolina’s reputation for being what Rothwell characterized as a “very business-friendly state.”

     As Schleich is a German company, it didn’t hurt that Charlotte is coincidentally home to more than 200 German-owned businesses which collectively make up the largest foreign investment group in the region. Also in the city’s favor was its close proximity to a large percentage of the Schleich customer base; the easy access to the I-77, I-85 and I-40 corridors; proximity to major ports like Wilmington and Charleston; and the regional intermodal freight transport facility at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

     Still, it was more than Charlotte’s business edge that attracted Schleich: “Just as important to us was the quality-of-life factor as well as the cost of housing, median incomes, schools, safety and the various amenities like football, basketball, baseball, NASCAR, the arts programs and museums found here,” explains Rothwell.

     “We knew Charlotte gave us the business advantages we were looking for, but we also wanted a city that was a great place to put down roots and raise a family—one that could attract and provide high-caliber employees. And the people are just so amazingly friendly here. The entire package made it very attractive to be in Charlotte.”

     Rothwell recounts a recent experience taking a group of New York colleagues to dine at the Mimosa Grill uptown and how “shocked” his guests were at what they considered the epic-friendliness of the wait staff—a level of service unheard of “back home.” Rothwell would know. Having transplanted here from New York 16 years ago, he now considers himself a proper Charlottean.

 

Global Alliances

     With over 60 employees now entrenched in the new 125,000-square-foot headquarters on Twin Lakes Parkway in north Charlotte, Schleich is understandably eager about its next big venture. Having recently licensed the rights to the world-famous Peanuts characters, the company is gearing up to launch a new line of figurines featuring Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy and the entire Peanuts gang. It won’t hurt that a new CGI computer-animated Peanuts 3D movie is due out in late 2015 to coincide with the 65th anniversary of the comic strip.

     “What’s most exciting about Peanuts is they have 99 percent consumer brand awareness,” marvels Rothwell. “It’s an iconic brand and fits in perfectly with our initiative to augment our already well-established Schleich products with other evergreen properties—ones that are not only here today, but are going to be here for years and years to come.”

     While further expansion into the licensing space is a high priority for Schleich, they won’t be travelling in unchartered waters. They’ve actually held the licensing rights for the recently revived Smurfs for more than 50 years—a fait accompli Rothwell says is unheard of in the licensing industry.

     Still ahead, Schleich has also entered into a global partnership with Warner Bros. Consumer Products and the DC Comics pantheon of Super Heroes. Those products are slated to launch in January 2015 and will include the iconic characters Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Flash and others.

     “People don’t realize how deep the DC Comics line really is,” notes Rothwell. “There are hundreds of characters there. The Batman storyline alone includes Robin, Catwoman, The Joker, The Riddler, The Penguin and so many more.”

     The admiration appears to be mutual as Karen McTier, executive vice president of domestic licensing and worldwide marketing for Warner Bros. Consumer Products stated, “We are thrilled to partner with Schleich and excited to incorporate them into the DC Comics universe to bring their artistic detail and creativity to the devoted fans of the DC Comics Super Heroes.”

     Schleich takes the development and manufacturing of their toys very seriously and assumes a genuine responsibility towards parents and children. They rely on the assistance of both, as well as educators, in the design and approach to their creations. Always aiming for products that are as realistic and naturalistic as possible, these figurines may be as close as many children get to actually seeing domestic farm animals, wild jungle animals and oceanic creatures.

     When choosing licensing products, special attention is paid to the character and message they carry. Outranking even the allure of sales potential is the educational element which is viewed as the most vital part of the process. To that end Schleich recently added accessories like castles, barns, stables and various “scenery packs” in which their characters and figurines live and play. “That was one of the challenges our customers came to us with,” explains Rothwell. “We were hearing, ‘We love it, now give us the playworld.’”

 

Smiles Around the World

     Demonstrating a genuine commitment to be an active supporter of the community and not just a resident, Schleich recently formed a partnership with Levine Children’s Hospital and gave an initial donation of 500 toys to the facility—something Rothwell describes as particularly “meaningful and rewarding for our staff.” Multiple events with additional donations are planned with the hospital including providing a supply of the new Peanuts characters when they become available later this year.

     “Anyone who’s ever visited the Levine Children’s Hospital knows those kids need hope,” comments Rothwell. “They need spirits lifted and all the fun they can get. We are so happy to bring some smiles to those brave kids and help in the healing process.”

     Last December Schleich also partnered with the USO which had an astounding 25,000 service people come through Charlotte. As a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. and USO runner-up for Serviceman of the Year in Japan, the cause is near and dear to Rothwell’s heart.

     “Our idea was to create thank-you packages for the USO service men and women, so we reached out to a handful of other companies including NASCAR, Verbatim and Diverse Marketing to donate items to go along with our Schleich toys,” explains Rothwell, who then asked for staff volunteers who would be willing to assemble what became more than 1,500 packages.

     “The response from our folks was overwhelming and I was so proud to see so much being done to support our service men and women. The project was so successful that we’re planning on doing it again in mid-2014.”

      The company is also interested in opportunities to utilize their toys for formal education purposes and is looking into partnering with area schools and mentoring programs. “We get a lot of requests from teachers—in particular for our animal figurines,” says Rothwell. “They may not have the resources to take their students to an actual zoo, or are teaching about animals from a specific region and like to use our products for teaching purposes.”

      While donations to schools have been made, Schleich doesn’t currently have a formalized process to meet all of those requests, so Rothwell is exploring ways to introduce the products into pre-K and elementary schools.

     As the date for their first anniversary in Charlotte approaches, Rothwell says the company couldn’t be happier with their decision. “Quality is at the core of everything we design and produce. It’s a theme central to everything Schleich stands for. It’s only fitting that our North American headquarters has relocated to such a quality city,” says Rothwell with a smile.

     And why shouldn’t he be? The man gets to make toys for a living! He adds, “At the end of the day, toys bring smiles. Whether you’re a child playing in his room, a serviceman going overseas, or a child in a hospital, people love toys. We’re just lucky enough to be in a business that’s so much fun.”

 

Sander Walker is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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