As chief commercial officer of Play Monster Group, Scott Flynn has serious responsibilities, but he also enjoys his title of Chief Fun Monster at the toy company. The 1985 Harbert management graduate discusses the intersection of sales and marketing and the healthy development that toys can provide for children.
Welcome to the Harbert College of Business podcast with your hosts, Sarah Gascon and Currie Dyess. Today's guest is Scott Flynn, Chief Commercial Officer at Play Monster Group. He also holds the title of Chief Fun Monster. Flynn is a 1985 Harbert graduate in management.
All right, Scott, welcome to the show and war eagle.
You studied management here at Auburn. Could you tell us why you decided to do that?
I grew up in business. My dad was an entrepreneur, so I grew up in his business and just always had a passion for sales and sales management. The part that I like about the management is that I just love interacting in the relationships with people.
Where I get my greatest satisfaction is how I can invest in teams, build teams, invest in teams and help grow and develop them as professionals. The business is one part and succeeding and growing a business but the more rewarding part of it is really cultivating, managing, and growing a team and really giving people the opportunity to grow and develop as professionals.
You've had quite the career of doing that. You launched your career at Lego. Can you tell us a little bit about what you learned as far as the marketing and global sales during that time?
Lego is one of the most powerful brands in the world now, but I was back in the 80s and 90s with them so the brand was in a different place at that time. However, it still had major global scope and appeal.
I guess what I learned through that is how do you preserve and how you manage a brand and the safeguards that you try to put around the brand from how you speak to the consumer, but then also how you manage it from a retail relationship, because there are certain ways that you would structure your business to preserve the brand, maintain the quality, and really the value perception of the brand. I think those were the big things about how do you grow and protect a brand over the time. That brand is almost 100 years old now, and they've done a tremendous job of evolving it, growing it and protecting it, maintaining a lot of the principles that we used to operate with back in the day. It was a much smaller business back when I was there to what it is now.
The other part is just, it's an incredible product concept. It's a product concept that even though people have tried to compete in that category, they've only been so successful. They dominate it, they own it, and it's just a tremendous story of what's been created for that company.
What are those meetings like as you try to transition because they used to be a brick building toy company. Now they have huge models and displays. They have movies. They're in theme parks. What are those conversations like? It doesn't have to necessarily be Lego, but that's just one example.
Yeah. Well, what was cool about the time that I was there was that when I started, there was no licensing business. They did not do theatrical character licensing with the product. I was there when they really decided to what I would say is kill the sacred cow because there was a belief within the core of the organization. They're Danish owned, family owned company to this day. Third generation. There was a part of it that we will grow this business without licensing or attaching another license to it. I was there when, basically the owner of the company, Kjeld Kristiansen, decided that it was time to make the move and Star Wars was the first license that came in. So I was there at the beginning of the Star Wars license and that decision really was the springboard for where the company is now.
It's still a construction toy. It's still the same bricks that it was, but they've brought it to a whole new paradigm with the storytelling that they're doing and partnering with licenses now. Then being able to extend that story through content, whether it be movies or video games and I was there when we were at the onset of video games. I was there when they were expanding the amusement parks, Lego Land parks. So I got to see a lot of that.
When I left the company, they had to recalibrate a lot of things and then refocused on the core business and then began to expand out with partnerships instead of trying to do all that stuff themselves. They tried to do it all themselves and it became too much. So then they recalibrated.
The toy business now, you think about it in realms of licenses, but it's storytelling. The stories that are told and how those stories connect back to toys, because there's a lot of content driven product now. When you look at that Lego line, there's a large percentage of that line that is story based now. Whether it's with Star Wars, Harry Potter, Marvel, some of the most powerful licenses in the world. You can even see fringe stuff that they're doing now, like the Friends cafe, which are these premium sets and things like that.
They've really expanded the brand and used content in a way that is supported with the brand values that they have. I think that's the other thing that I learned there, the importance of preserving those values of a brand, regardless of the direction you were taking the company and if you could not preserve those values, then you wouldn't go in those directions.
That's really fascinating. Can you just explain a little bit about the licensing process and how can smaller entrepreneurs or mom and pop toy stores keep up with the licensing game?
The smaller companies, because you have the big toy companies that have the relationships and what you call the master toy license for a lot of these key properties. What it comes down to is, when you can bring innovation and you can bring differentiation with product concepts that connect to the story or the license of the property, and you can bring that story and content to life in an organic way through innovative product that maybe some of the main partners are not supporting, or don't have the ability to support and really carve out a niche. That's the way to do it. It's through innovation and connecting that in an organic way to the story.
You've been doing this for 30 plus years, something like that, right? What is it about the toy industry that has kept you around?
It's simple, it's toys. I don't want to over glamorize it because it's a job. You work, you have business issues, and you have the same challenges and struggles that you have in any other kind of business but when you go back to the core product and the core consumer, you're developing toys and games for families, for kids, and you're bringing joy to households through that. You're bringing quality play experiences and that's fun.
The speed in which the business operates and how the trends change in fashion and all that, it's constantly changing. It's constantly fresh. You're constantly on the move. There's never a dull moment in this business and that's the other part of it is that the products are, they're trend. They come, they go, but you're getting to play with toys. I just got out of meetings that we were looking at part of our product line concepts for 2023. You spend a couple hours just looking at toy concepts. It's just fun. It's fun.
The other thing, and it's a joke, but in the toy business, it's funny and you can talk to anybody in the business that's been in it for a long time. It's kind of like the mafia. Once you get in, you either can't get out or you don't want to get out. It's like that and I mean that in a fun way because it's just really a comradery and a special connection to the business and the products and the things that you're able to accomplish there that really make it fun and special.
I'm in the toy business until I'm done. It's like going into a different industry would be a transition I don't know if I could even make.
Scott, your current job at Play Monster, you oversee global sales part of your job responsibility. You do have experience on the global stage. Can you just unpack a little bit how you found yourself in this position and where that experience came from?
Well, I'm at Play Monster now because of a decision I made back in 2000. It's funny how they connect, but, I spent 16 years at Lego and as I moved through the company and at different points in time in your career, you reach decision points and those decision points will be driven by a lot of things.
What I found with myself is that my career was evolving. I was successful and I was doing it on the national account side of the business. You start getting phone calls from other companies and you start weighing the opportunity and there was a couple of times that I came close to making a decision to leave Lego. That's where I come into a lot of times you got to really value process the decision you want to make and understand what those ramifications, because the grass can always look greener on the other side, until you get to the other side.
I made the decision to exhibit patience, which is not normally in my character and stick with Lego. What it did was it skyrocketed, or it catapulted my career, my learning, and experience and opened up an opportunity for me I never thought in a million years that I would have. Moving from running Walmart from a global standpoint for Lego and I had the opportunity to oversee sales and relocate to London for two years with my young family and oversee a 200 plus million dollar business in seven countries. I had the UK, I had the four Nordic countries and I had the Benelux and I got an education there that I've been able to use for the rest of my career.
So I did that, I came home, and then my career path changed and I moved on. That was in 2000 to 2002. Well, in 2014, my boss from Europe at that time who I'd maintained a relationship with said, "Hey, there's an opportunity with this company in Wisconsin. I'd like to connect you." That's why I'm at Play Monster, because of that relationship I had there but also the experience I gained there is experience that, whatever direction I went, was experience that very few people have the opportunity to get, and I've been able to use and leverage that experience for my entire career.
It also shows that at key points in time in your life, when you make certain decisions, those decisions and how those decisions can impact your life way down the road in ways that you could never envision until you do it.
My point to everyone out there is that trust your heart, exercise patience, really vet decisions when you make them, because the impact that they can have on you, not only short term, but long term are important.
Phenomenal. That's great.
Yeah, that's a good one. How has technology changed the game?
Well, technology has changed the game as far as the innovation in product. It really has. When you think about technology and kids, the first thing that comes to people's mind is video games and that type of product. That's not classified as toys, but it competes for the toy dollar.
Is that something that is going to take away from the toy business? You have your peaks and valleys, but the two compliment each other and one of the things that is interesting about video games and the toy business is how the two have been able to merge now. When you talk about how content driven the toy business has become and using properties and license to story tell through product video games are now becoming a big part of that, where you see major video game properties, launching toy products. That is considered content that now resonates in consumer products and toy products.
So the two have really merged in a way and the toy industry has been really smart about how they have partnered with those video game companies and used that content to expand the toy business. So the two have come to a place where they're starting to compliment each other.
The other part of that is that technology and screen time, I think COVID was the big reset. It impacted the toy industry in a way that was crazy. The industry saw two of the biggest increases that we've seen in over a decade and a half, even two decades. When everybody got into lockdown and they had to find ways to stay occupied, toys and games became a big part of what families started doing. Then you saw people beginning to fight and fight for that time away from the screen.
I think that one of the things that we see in our research is that the millennial mom and the young family now are really putting a lot of focus and effort on trying to manage that screen time and make sure that their children spend the kind of time that they need to in a physical play environment as opposed to a screenplay.
Kids spend a lot of time on screens. We all spend a lot of time on screens now, but I think the young family now is fighting to make sure that there's more differentiation and more time away from the screen doing those other things that are really, really important to the development of a child. Play and interaction, those are things that develop kids into adults. You might not think so, but it really is. Even though toys are fun, there's a lot of developmental value in a lot of toys that stimulate the mind, hand eye coordination, et cetera, which are things that you can't get in a lot of other places.
Speaking of technology, how has the rise in eCommerce, especially during COVID, how has that impacted the brick and mortar side of the toy industry
In the time of COVID and lockdown it probably accelerated the evolution of eCommerce by three plus years. That it took a quantum leap. Amazon is the juggernaut when it comes to eCommerce, but you're seeing Walmart and Target catch up very quickly. The thing that's interesting about how Target and Walmart are managing eCommerce and the advantage that they have over someone like Amazon is now that the people are getting back in the stores and you're starting to see more of an equalization of people going out and shopping because they actually missed shopping. So people like getting back in the stores now.
ECommerce is still at a new level, but the thing that's interesting about how Walmart and Target are able to manage that is that they can manage the consumer approach in a 360 degree fashion because they have brick and mortar, and then they build off the brick and mortar and they have eCommerce. But now the other things that they have that Amazon is not in the same place that they can do is leveraging in-store pickup. They leverage grocery to sell hard lines and how that sale can initiate online but people will go into stores and pick it up, or it's pick up and they'll deliver to the car. But there's that evolution that over time, Walmart and Target are going to be able to leverage eCommerce in a different way than what Amazon is.
Amazon purchased Whole Foods and they have tried some different store locations and I think they see the importance of how do you connect the physical and the digital world to create that whole 360 flywheel with the consumer. I think that's one of the things that's going to be interesting. Everything's not going to just shift online, but it's how you leverage online and you make it part of the full shopping experience, especially those that can connect the consumer back to brick and mortar.
It also gives the brick and mortar people an opportunity to sell expanded assortments online, where they only have so much space in a physical store.
The other part of that is how do manufacturers work with retailers in a way to grow and expand their business from an eCommerce standpoint, because you only have so much space at retail so you're much more limited in what can be presented merchandised, a brick and mortar store, but how do you leverage that digitally can expand your business.
What are some of the other biggest challenges you're facing right now?
Well, I don't know if everybody's heard, there's a supply chain crisis.
It was happening a lot earlier than when the government finally started saying, "Oh, there's a supply chain crisis." That has probably put more pressure on not just the toy industry, but all businesses, because freight costs have gone through the roof four and five times and it just happened like this. That's just something you just can't automatically adjust a P and L to.
The supply chain, not only from the standpoint of the capacity of containers that are available to bring goods from overseas, because our industry depends a lot on production in China, and then even inbound transportation. The limitation of the number of truck drivers and trucks that are there to be able to physically move goods.
COVID caused a massive spike in consumer spending. When the government was pumping stimulus money into the economy, it inflated sales and people were spending that money. You're starting to see that equalize with no more stimulus money, with costs going up, inflation like we haven't seen in 40 plus years. So all those things are starting to effect, but there's still these supply constraints and it's how do you work and overcome that and become more agile.
Parts of what you see is that, Long Beach, one of the major ports in California that a lot of goods come in, they need a tremendous upgrade. It's antiquated there so there's millions of dollars that need to be pumped into Long Beach to modernize that and create more efficiencies. I think you're also starting to see other ports like in the Northwest, Savannah, Georgia, and even up in the Northeast. Those ports are becoming more significant options for people to bring goods in from overseas than they were in the past.
There's other technologies and things that are starting to happen on the supply chain side and I'll give a specific here that is going to impact everybody, specifically Walmart, is now partnered with Auburn University on a technology called RFID and it's RFID labeling. It's a label that you must put on every single piece of merchandise before it goes into... It's part of your packaging. It creates incredible efficiencies for retailers and with Walmart launching this, department person can walk in a store and have a scanner and just basically fly the scanner over the sections and it automatically systematically updates the inventories where you don't have to go through and count, poke numbers into a keyboard and things like that anymore.
In our industry, we've got timetables in which we need to put that in place and we're working through those but it's just another example of it's a challenge, but it's also how technology is evolving at a rapid speed to improve efficiencies and lower cost over the long term, as far as how you operate from a supply chain perspective.
I think supply chain is one of the biggest challenges that we're facing right now as a country and as a US business industry and how we improve that, not only from the transportation part of it, but then long term sourcing and where you start looking at the more diversified sourcing model and you move outside of China and then start using other areas because of the capacity and the demand is such that you have to start looking at creating ultimate sourcing strategies as companies.
And Scott, what is the culture like at Play Monster and what does it mean to be the Chief Fun Monster?
Well, our culture, it's a Midwestern company, but I come from the south and what I'll tell you, I've moved around a lot. However, I find the culture in the south and the culture in the Midwest, there's a lot of similarities. The people in the Midwest talk funny compared to people down south, but other than that, it's family and it's a family environment. It's a fast paced environment. We work hard, it's a business, but there's camaraderie and teamwork in our culture that is pretty unique and pretty special. It's one of the things that gets me going every day, because I just love the people I work with and the commitment that people have to our ultimate goals and how they fight for those on a daily basis are something that is just incredibly gratifying to me and motivating to me because of the passion that our team has.
We're selling toys. I try to be as upbeat as I can and you can only take yourself so seriously. I like to keep things light and fun and joke and things like that and so that's why I got tagged the Chief Fun Monster.
It's a good title.
Yeah. Could be worse.
You spent some time as an entrepreneur. What are some of the lessons you learned and how valuable was that experience to your career?
My wife and I were in business for ourselves together, ran a business and we found out that we enjoyed being married more than we did working together. So I think that was the first thing.
But seriously, it's a master's education in a very short period of time because you are responsible for everything. We had different competencies. I was more of a sales and marketing guy. She was a product development and production and creative. So she was the product side and I was the sales and marketing side and we ran a small company, but you learn everything. It forces you into areas that maybe you don't spend a lot of time in on the financial side, you learn the legal side, but you know what? When you're an entrepreneur, that's your job and it never stops. You're always working.
Owning your own business is gratifying, but the effort and the work that goes into it is something that you can't underestimate going into it. We did our normal jobs, but you would be in the warehouse, packing out goods and loading trucks and when you own the business, you do what you have to do every single day to make it successful. But it broadens your perspective. It increases what you understand as far as levels of accountability that you take, wherever you go from that point on whether you continue to be an entrepreneur or like I did, we chose that I step back into the corporate side of what we did.
But you learn everything it takes to run a business and when you step into a new situation, it changes your perspective. It broadens your perspective. It gives you understanding, dynamics that happen in a company that if you've never spent time there, it can be confusing or understanding or frustrating and it kind of balances me out because I went through it and I understand it.
And you've made quite the career out of sales and marketing and people development. Why are those such important skills to learn?
I don't care what your business is and what you do in the business. There's three things that you have to do. You got to work with people. You've got to be able to communicate to your end user, and you have to generate sales and you have to have product that generates revenue, because you know what? Product is king. Product is king of anything that you do, but then driving that revenue is critical. Now, it takes a full organization to set a sales team up to be successful and the sales team can't operate without anyone else, but it is about revenue.
The thing that's cool about having background in both sales and marketing for young people coming up, if you have a passion for sales, or if you have a passion for marketing, my advice is spend time in both, because there are things that you learn from the marketing side that make you better on the sales side. When you understand the consumer, you understand how you communicate to the consumer. You understand how products come to life and then how you market those.
But then someone that wants to be on the marketing side, if you spend time on the sales side, you learn the realities. You learn what it's like being in the trenches, because you have to make the sale. You have to generate the revenue and you have to manage retail partnerships. Every retailer has different challenges and requirements that you have to deal with. Those are realities. You can have great product that you think is great for the consumer, but you also have to understand that it has to meet the need of your retail partners before you can get it to the consumer.
So that's why understanding both sides really sets you up longer term, because you have perspective on both sides. It really makes you stronger and better, because if you stay focused on one side the entire time, and you don't have the kind of exposure or interaction on the other side, it can be frustrating and confusing and that, and it really gives you a broader perspective. It makes you much more effective, and it really expands your thinking and understanding for the long term.
What advice would you give our students or most recent graduates?
Follow your passion. Don't try to put a square peg in a round hole. I'll tell you, what's funny is that when I got out of college, I knew that I wanted to get into business and sales and marketing, but I didn't really know what field I wanted to go into.
When the opportunity came to me to go to work for Lego, it was just like the switch flipped on. It would've never occurred to me in a million years I could go work for a toy company on a toy that I grew up with and I had passion for and I played with. I got to do that. I think that what people should do is understand what makes them tick. What are the things that they're passionate about and try to align those passions with a career path. Because if you marry up the two, you're going to be happy. When you try to move into a place that you're not wired for it, your heart's not there. Your passion's not there, it's going to be a grind for you.
So, it might sound simple, but it's follow your heart, follow your passions, because there are plenty of opportunities in the marketplace where you can align your passions with business and really make it synergistic for yourself.
That's really exceptional advice and the whole show has been really fantastic. There's so much information to glean from this. How can our students keep up with your journey or even contact you?
I'm on LinkedIn, Scott Flynn. A lot of things pop up on my LinkedIn page because of my connections with Auburn. So you can find me on LinkedIn and that's probably the fastest place to find me. I'm here if anybody ever wants to talk or wants advice or anything like that. Reach out. When you say Auburn family, it means Auburn family.
Absolutely. Thank you.
Scott, it's been an absolute pleasure speaking with you today. Thank you so much for your time and war eagle.
It's been an honor privilege for me and war damn eagle.
Harbert. Inspiring business.