100 Days” – Q&A with John Gessert, TIA Chairman and President of American Plastic Toys

June 25, 2014 | John Gessert, President / CEO of American Plastic Toys (APT), was named chairman of the Toy Industry Association (TIA) Board of Directors in February 2014.  Following a tradition of U.S. presidents since 1933, to mark the milestone of his “First 100 Days in Office,” Toy News Tuesday editors asked Gessert about his new role … and what’s in store for the Association.

TNT: When you accepted the gavel in February, you became the first TIA chairman from a mid-sized toy company since 2008 and the first in an even greater number of years that has entirely U.S.-based production facilities.  What unique insights and perspectives do you think this background gives you as you settle in to your leadership role?

JG:  It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been in the toy business for thirty years … and I love it!  This is such a fun and innovative industry, the time has passed quickly.  American Plastic Toys has given me a well-rounded perspective of all aspects of the toy business, including sales, marketing, manufacturing and operations.  I joined in 1984 as a member of their sales and operations team, a few years later I was managing regional sales and then national sales.  I was named executive vice president in 1998 and five years later became president and eventually CEO.

My involvement in TIA has followed a somewhat similar trajectory. I was eager to become involved in the Association, so I joined several committees, became an active participant, and was eventually invited to join the Board of Directors.  One year the nominating committee and Bryan Stockton invited me to the Executive Committee; since then, I’ve served as the Association’s secretary / treasurer, and then vice chairman before accepting the gavel from Soren Torp Laursen in February. I’m also a member of the Toy Industry Foundation Board of Trustees.

I plan to leverage all these APT, TIA and TIF roles to guide my chairmanship over the next two years. It’s a short period of time to take concrete steps that can help the Association best address our constituents’ needs.

TNT: What have your first 100 days as chair been like?  What can you tell us about your priorities and the actions you’ve been taking? 

JG: These first few months have definitely been a whirlwind! I chaired my first TIA Board meeting in May and was really pleased to see that we’ve taken some important steps forward on many of our strategic priorities:

First, the Board agreed that we needed strengthen the relationship between TIA and the Canadian Toy Association (CTA), so that we could work together to align the interests of the entire North American toy industry and represent those interests with a unified voice to the U.S. and Canadian governments.

The Trade Show Committee is reviewing Fall Toy Preview and making changes to further enhance its value for both toy companies and retailers. I have personally discussed the steps that the Committee has undertaken to date with Bill Beebe and Marian Bossard.  When FTP was first conceived, buyers wanted an appointment-only event with closed booths, but times have changed and retail attendees now tell us they want to “window shop.”  So, this year TIA is encouraging exhibiting companies to include open display areas within their booths.  

We are launching a “Value of Play” campaign that will remind consumers about the value of play and the vital role that toys – the tools of play – have in a child’s development … and hopefully drive enhanced toy sales.  TIA’s Centenary Committee has already started meeting as well, and we are beginning to formulate plans for an appropriate celebration of TIA’s 100th anniversary in 2016.

In addition, one of my personal goals as chair is to continue to find new ways to enhance membership value and cultivate the development of young, incoming toy executives who are new to the industry. To that end, just last week TIA re-launched its Environmental Sustainability Committee to help monitor and influence environmental issues affecting our members on a global scale. We are also exploring how TING (Toy Industry Next Generation), our industry’s network for young professionals, can be expanded to engage more members and offer them more networking and professional development opportunities.

TNT: Can you go into a little more detail about how TIA’s new relationship with CTA will impact the North American toy industry?

JG: The expression “there’s strength in numbers” really sums up this new partnership. Our two organizations – and our members – have worked closely together for nearly eight decades, but this new formal relationship will help to strengthen the products, services, events and support that we offer our members and stakeholders. Moving forward, we’ll be able to represent the interests of the North American toy industry with a single, unified voice in advocacy messages to the governments in both countries.

What does this really mean?  On July 1, CTA will become an affiliate of TIA. Any TIA member with operations or sales in Canada will be eligible for CTA membership at no additional charge, and CTA members will be eligible for TIA membership. Toy Fair and Fall Toy Preview will also be enhanced to offer U.S. and Canadian manufacturers and retailers targeted business development opportunities, greater efficiency, and cost-savings.

I’m confident this is just the start of many great things that TIA and CTA can accomplish together, as well as an important step being taken by TIA to help member companies become more competitive in the world economy.

TNT:  What advice would you offer to TIA’s newest members – whether from the U.S. or from Canada?

JG: TIA is interesting because it represents a wide range of companies – from the largest international toy companies to those who are just breaking into the business, and from independent toy inventors to retailers that have been around for generations. Everyone who wants to participate can – and does – have a voice at the TIA table.  APT staff is doing a great job of fostering connections throughout the industry and TIA community.  As a result, we’ve taken valuable information and insights back to our company that helps us make educated decisions about our business. 

My advice to others is this:  get involved and take advantage of the information that TIA offers.  You can be as active as you like:  join committees; advocate on behalf of the industry on Capitol Hill during the Washington, DC Fly-In; participate in webinars; download research reports and industry best practices from the TIA website; or simply monitoring your e-mail in-box for weekly updates via the Toy News Tuesday e-newsletter and periodic members-only bulletins.  I guarantee that you will find information that is helpful for you.

TNT: You just mentioned the Washington, DC Fly-In.  You and APT have been very supportive of TIA’s outreach to elected officials and regulators across the country. What have you learned from your interaction with legislators that would be good for other toy companies to know?  And is there anything specific that the toy industry should keep in mind during this election year?

JG: Attending the annual Washington, DC Fly-In is a great way to become involved politically. By taking part in the DC Fly-In over the years, I’ve come to understand that legislators do appreciate the opportunity to meet face-to-face with constituents.  It gives them a chance to learn about our needs and concerns, but it also gives toy companies an opportunity to learn more about the legislative process. Most importantly, it ensures that we will be included in future conversations about new policies and regulations that impact the toy industry. This event also provides additional opportunities to meet more staff from fellow TIA member companies.

A few years ago, TIA created the toy industry’s first-ever Political Action Committee to collect personal contributions from TIA members, combine those funds into more substantial amounts, and direct those funds to support the reelection of key legislators who are influencing the decisions that directly impact the toy industry. TOYPAC has become an important advocacy tool for TIA and I encourage everyone to consider supporting the cause, especially as we gear up for the mid-term elections this fall.  [EDITOR’S NOTE:  More information about TOYPAC is available online.]

TNT: Thanks so much John, these answers have been very insightful.  Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers?

JG:  Any organization that’s nearly 100 years old knows that the one constant is change.  TIA must constantly adapt and transform to remain relevant to all of our members.  We want to know what’s important to you and what you need from the organization.  So I encourage each and every one of our members to please speak up and let us know what TIA is doing that you like – or don’t like.  You have a voice in this organization.  Please reach out to me, Carter or any member of the TIA team, so that we can work together to make TIA the organization you want it to be.