The key to my childhood fantasy world was 3 inches tall. It had a smile, but no nose, and was a little stiff around the hips. Today, there are some 2.4 billion Playmobil figures spread over the globe. Playmobil – the name sounds as American as apple pie or Hollywood, but in actual fact, these little figures with their spiky hair have their origins in Germany. To be precise, in Zirndorf some 20 minutes outside of Nuremberg.
The person responsible for providing innumerable children all over the world with uncounted happy hours is Horst Brandstätter, the managing director of Playmobil. He sits behind a long desk on the first floor of the headquarters, a dog dozing at his feet with half-closed eyes that reveal the occasional watchful glint. Brandstätter – voted Manager of the Year 2009, bearer of the German Federal Cross of Merit, honorary citizen of the city of Zirndorf – is 78 years old and an entrepreneur to the bone. Behind him on the wall hang the framed maxims: "The path to wealth can be summed up in two words: work and thrift." Or: "You never get a second chance to make a first impression."
Yet Brandstätter does not communicate in business speak. Instead, speaking with a strong local accent, he makes a genial, almost down-to-earth impression. "As a child I had a pedal car which I loved and a "Stoffkasper", a Punch-like rag doll which I literally loved to bits," he replies to our query. From an early age on, it was clear that one day he would join the family business "geobra Brandstätter". His mother, however, insisted that he learn a trade first. So he became an apprentice in a mold and die manufacturing company.
Mobile and something to play with? Playmobil!
When HOB – as his employees call him – joined geobra Brandstätter in 1954, the enterprise was already producing plastic toys. Then during the oil crisis in the early 1970s, plastic became increasingly expensive. Brandstätter commissioned developer Hans Beck, a cabinetmaker by trade and amateur inventor, to come up with some new ideas. Ideally they were looking for a concept that could be further developed, added on to. With little pieces that required only small quantities of plastic. Beck refused to take inspiration from products by other manufacturers, Brandstätter recalls. "I bought him cars and trucks to help him with his research. But Herr Beck just gave me an annoyed look and said: "Take it away! You're narrowing my developmental potential to come up with something new!" When Beck presented the first designs of the little figurines, Horst Brandstätter was doubtful: "Herr Beck showed me these little figures, with no cars, no houses, no nothing!"
But then he understood: Playmobil is not just about the figurines. "The concept has a special element to it that other toys don't have. It sparks the fantasy." Brandstätter says he is frequently asked to demonstrate what is so special about Playmobil: "But I can't! The special ingredient is the process it triggers in the minds of children. It fires their imaginations and they use the Playmobil figurines to make the stories they conjure up come to life." Christian Haug, a sociologist, expresses it differently. Playmobil figures are social chameleons; they are neutral figures onto which children can project their fantasies by assigning a different role to each figurine. "The topic can be discussed endlessly. Basically, I simply enjoy seeing how children get so thoroughly caught up in their Playmobil worlds," Brandstätter concludes.
Developing the brand has been a process to which he has given a great deal of thought over the years. "I have come to the conclusion that a brand name should not reveal too much about the product; instead, it should make people curious. When we were trying to come up with a good name for Playmobil, we thought it should indicate that it is something to play with, and that it is mobile, too…"
Playmobil doesn't get thrown away: it is passed down to the next generation.
Children rarely play with the same things their parents played with, yet according to Brandstätter, Playmobil doesn't get thrown away – it is passed down to the next generation. The first figurines were introduced on the market in 1974 together with three theme worlds that are still going strong today – Construction Workers ("present time"), Native Americans ("other cultures") and Knights ("history"). It was the start of a success story: geobra Brandstätter's 2010 turnover for Playmobil marks the eleventh consecutive growth year and amounted to 507 million euro.
And Playmobil is no longer only available pint-size, either: every year, 700'000 people visit Zirndorf, the location of Fun-Park, the Playmobil theme park where children’s fantasies come to life. In the Wild West town, children can hunt for jewels in the sand or lovingly groom plastic horses at the farm. The pirate ship stands ready for intrepid buccaneers to board. And restrooms feature clothes dryers – in case a young guest falls into one of the ponds.
Behind the glass entrance doors of the Playmobil headquarters, an over-sized figure can be made out. It's a gardener with the well-known spiky hair and a friendly smile standing next to a flower planter. Lechuza plant systems are the second business mainstay of the family establishment, and achieved a turnover of 40.5 million euro in 2010.
Playmobil sparks the imagination. And that's how we want it to stay.
Horst Brandstätter is a long-term planner. This accounts for why he has been spending his winters in Florida for the past 15 years, though he concedes that the fact that it is hard to play golf in the snow may have something to do with this choice. However, he adds, "The American market is also the most important market for toys. In Florida I can observe the consumers." And, he goes on to say: "I decided to leave the company in a series of steps rather than all at once. This way, the office can slowly get used to working without me."
Brandstätter does like to not recruit executives from the outside. “I have always preferred promoting our own people over engaging headhunters to procure candidates." Above all, the Playmobil CEO values employees who are in line with the company's guiding principles. "I appreciate people who are pleasant to work with and able to think logically." Today, the company employs 60 developers. But whether the theme at hand is the Stone Age, Top Agents or Dragon Land – one criteria remains the same: "It's not just about getting the kids to play. Playmobil sparks the imagination. And that's how we want it to stay."
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