Paid to Play

A "compulsive entrepreneur" finds his niche.

On a beautiful afternoon in 1975, Jack R. Schylling '72 was supposed to be working the phones and organizing classmates for the Harvard College Fund. Instead he was staring, bored and restless, out the window of his office in Holyoke Center. Suddenly a strange creature whizzed by. Craning for a closer look, he saw it was actually a mechanical flying bird--"a really neat toy." Down below, a hippie stood on the sidewalk, birds in hand, selling them to passersby. Schylling rushed outside and bought two.

Running Dogs Pull Toy

Running Dogs Pull Toy.

Photograph courtesy of Schylling Toys

He was struck by the bird's simple flight high above the Harvard Square crowds, its unfettered arcing and dipping. "I watched for a while and figured out this hippie guy was making more money than I was," Schylling recalls. "He was certainly having more fun. He was meeting people and was free to pick up anytime he wanted to and go somewhere else." Spurred by the autonomous lifestyle, the clever mechanics of the toy, and the prospect of profit, Schylling soon ordered 144 more birds from the French manufacturer. With a Boston vendor's license in his pocket and an armload of faux fowl he went to Faneuil Hall, where tourists bought out the lot in two hours. At $5 apiece, that gave Schylling $720 in cash and the rest of the day off. He had discovered the fine (and enviable) art of being paid to play. Thus evolved his company, Schylling Associates, now one of the leading specialty toymakers in the world.

 

Toymaker Jack R. Schylling Õ72 among some of his favorite tin creations. Upper right: A Lionel Railroad Hand Car.
Toymaker Jack R. Schylling '72 among some of his favorite tin creations.
Portrait by Stu Rosner

The bird, which Schylling called an Ornithopter, is based on designs from the sketchbooks of Leonardo da Vinci and is still imported and sold by Schylling Associates, which celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary this year. The $20-million Massachusetts company produces and sells more than 200 other classically styled toys composed primarily of wood, felt, and tin (read: no plastic, garish colors, or size D batteries). "We don't do Barney or Pokémon," says Schylling. He is the founder and creative force, but leaves the company's marketing and finances to his brothers, David and Tom. The headquarters in Rowley, located minutes from the ocean on Boston's North Shore, has a casual air: employees are surrounded by the primary colors of a kid's playroom and more toys than Santa could deliver in a lifetime. Schylling himself often travels around the world looking for new toys and visiting the 50-plus factories, mostly in China, that produce his toys.

A charmed life? Though he's quick to point out the years of bird-selling and countless 18-hour days it took to build his business, Schylling (who resembles a cross between actors Jeff Bridges and William Hurt) is one of those humbly spoken entrepreneurial souls who make it all look easy. And fun. At age 50, he buys toys every day--and they're not for his three young children. Some 15 hours a week are spent on the Internet scouring eBay and hundreds of websites devoted to vintage toys, collectibles, board games, and old-time tin wind-ups. The shelves of his Rowley office are crammed full of the stuff "for our inspiration," he says. Pulling down a 1930s board game on sailing called Little Skipper, he fingers a tiny boat and its lollipop red sail. "Isn't this wonderful? Look at the graphics on the box." He pulls the string on a tin hot-air balloon printed with the name "Grace," after his 3-year-old, and the balloon floats toward the ceiling. He points to another Schylling product, Bowling Bunnies, based on a Victorian-era game he saw at an auction at Sotheby's (where his wife, Shelagh, is an art consultant). "They're cute. They're soft. They're safe," he says, gently squeezing the chubby felt creatures. "What more could you want?"

Bowling Bunnies, a Schylling Associates product modeled after a Victorian-era game.

Bowling Bunnies, a Schylling Associates product modeled after a Victorian-era game.

Photograph courtesy of Schylling Toys

The company also creates tin lunchboxes and pails, wooden puzzles and blocks, and other items based on licensed literary characters like Winnie-the-Pooh, Curious George, Madeleine, and Arthur the aardvark, now the subject of a popular public-television cartoon series. Schylling's talents with tin enabled him to beat out other scrabbling toymakers this August to win the licensing rights to make tin toys based on the first of the four wildly popular Harry Potter books. A small but growing branch of the business is a line of old-fashioned wind-up tin toys modeled on toys produced between 1900 and 1950. They're popular among adult collectors, home decorators, and aging baby boomers: aesthetically oriented people with a soft spot for the past--not unlike Schylling.

As a child growing up in St. Louis, he was mechanically inclined. He enjoyed taking apart small machines, bikes, and cars. Boats and aircraft, especially zeppelins, fascinated him. Unsure about even going to college, he interviewed with the Harvard recruiter "just for practice" and was accepted early. He never applied elsewhere. "I was so relaxed in the interview because I didn't take it seriously," he recalls, a tendency he credits for much of his success in the toy business. At Harvard, he was drawn to visual and environmental studies, but concentrated in economics--"which, in those days, was really political science taught by graduate students who told us all to become Marxists." Interestingly, he remembers the day a friend, Paul E. Bailey '72, J.D.-M.P.P '76, brought some toys into Quincy House. "He was a very bright guy," Schylling says. "He made me see that adults could find toys amusing."

Bailey, now an environmental consultant, says, "Jack was a memorable character, a natural charmer. But he was also a guy who marched to the beat of his own music." Bailey remembers various undergraduate business ventures, including Schylling's stint as a pioneering bike-rack salesman. "Here we were a bunch of Harvard students, what did we know about the real world?" he laughs. "And there's Jack lining up manufacturers and putting together catalogs and flyers to sell bike racks." Schylling also sold carpets for dorm rooms and Scottish seaweed-based moisturizer to health-food stores. "I told people I was a compulsive entrepreneur," Schylling says. A psychedelic optical toy based on a medieval design, Bailey vaguely recalls, didn't go over too well. But he was impressed, even then, by Schylling's willingness to take risks, his confidence to explore unorthodox options "when the rest of us were going to medical school and law school."

"This is the mysterious part about my life: I never suffered anxiety about not having a job," Schylling says. "I always felt I would start my own business. I thought something would come along and grab my attention." After graduation he traveled, meeting expenses by working as a bike and auto mechanic and sometimes by filling in at a friend's machine shop. Business held promise partly because his late father, a GTE executive, "always said he wished he'd had the nerve to start his own company," says Schylling. "He never pushed me to do it, but he planted a seed."

Regular paychecks finally arrived when a family neighbor, annoyed by Schylling's "wasted education," hired him as a national sales manager for a company that made light dimmers. Thereafter he joined the nonprofit sector, landing the somewhat sales-related job at the Harvard College Fund. "I was truly soul-searching," he explains. "Should I get a job? I am competitive and it really bugged me that my peers who had gone to graduate schools were getting rich." But fundraising was not the answer. "My God, was I bored," he says. "That's why I was looking out that window." But the "bird thing," he concedes, received little support: "People would ask, 'How is it, Jack, you were able to barter your Harvard degree for a Boston vendor's license?'"

A Lionel Railroad Hand Car.

A Lionel Railroad Hand Car.

Photograph courtesy of Schylling Toys

 

For several years he imported the Ornithopter, building a network of friends and acquaintances to sell them at tourist sites nationwide. Expanding to include other French toys, he soon added retailers. When those toys became too pricey to import, he shifted to Asian suppliers and also found tin and metal items made in former Eastern-bloc countries. "These companies were making toys the same way they made them before World War II. They were wonderful," he says. "After the war, plastics took over the toy industry" in western countries.

In the early 1980s, the company began creating its own toys, in addition to the imports. Its first tin wind-up reproduction was based on a German-made tin zeppelin Schylling had found at a Connecticut toy show. The item took off after the Restoration Hardware chain put Schylling's Graf Zeppelin on a brochure, opening his eyes to the flourishing market of retro-housewares and the so-called "nostalgia niche."

For Schylling's success ultimately lies less in the objects he makes than in the depth of feeling they engender. "I know that when I was little and saw my grandfather, he would pull something special out of somewhere, a little toy, like magic," he says. "And I'll never forget how neat that is--that some older person would show me something just for me. I like to think that what we're making might be like that."

~Nell Porter Brown

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