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Ben Varadi of Spin Master Ltd.
Ben Varadi of Spin Master Ltd.

Leadership: Ben Varadi

Toy maker plays with the big boys now Add to ...

Ben Varadi never planned to be in toys. "When you're six years old and you're playing with toys, you don't think, 'When I grow up, I'm going to make toys,'" says Mr. Varadi, who is partner and executive vice president of Spin Master Ltd., one of North America's top toy manufacturers.

Mr. Varadi has been with the company since 1994, Spin Master's founding year. Immediately after graduating from the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business, he joined school pals Ronnen Harary and Anton Rabie to help produce and market their first product, the Earth Buddy - a small, pantyhose-covered head filled with grass seeds that sprouted hair when watered.

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"It's a very exciting industry because things are constantly changing," says Mr. Varadi, whose chief role is product selection and development. "You also get to meet extremely crazy people because, if you're going into toys, chances are the alternative wasn't banking."

When the partners started, they quickly realized that the only way they were going to survive was by creating their own toys.

"We couldn't get licenses because we had no credibility," says Mr. Varadi. "No one knew who we were. But one thing we were able to bring was a fresh approach. We didn't come jaded to the industry. We had an open mind and really wanted to have fun."

While he admits to "a lot of failures," the company has had some spectacular hits in the worldwide toy market, notably Air Hogs and Bakugan, a game involving magnetic cards and marbles that open into mystical action creatures.

Growing up, Mr. Varadi says he was a "big TV watcher" who was always into entertainment. That's helped in his job, as does having an eye for detail and the ability to fight for things he's passionate about. So has his creative and youthful approach to life. The 39-year-old is a big fan of cartoons and frequently unwinds with the arcade games that line his office. He's also passionate about music, playing piano and guitar.

"I'm a big hobbyist," says Mr. Varadi. "I love to write tunes. When I think about being creative in toys, it's the same as being creative in music. They all feed my desire to be creative."

Mr. Varadi believes that as you get older and have more responsibilities, you have to fight for that personal creative time. "Sunday is my day," he says. "I need four or five hours to practice my music. You have to make time and cut things out that aren't adding to your life. You have to be a bit selfish with your time."

Establishing trust with inventors has been one of the most rewarding things for Mr. Varadi personally. "We take all the inventors on these wonderful camaraderie-building trips," he says. "This year we're going to Iceland. It's not that crazy expensive. More companies should do this! Not because it's good business - the rule is no business - we just laugh so much."

Mr. Varadi says he's not particularly organized, except when it comes to being disciplined with his time. "Today, I have to be more of a macro thinker - to think more about the strategy of the business and where it's going and less about following up on the details - so I don't need as much organization."

Nor does he need to have a good environment to think. "Ideas could hit me in a thunderstorm, in the shower or while I'm shopping for food," he says. "I was one of the first ADD (attention deficit disorder) cases in Canada. It was 1973 and they said, 'We have this new drug Ritalin and you should be on it.' But my mom was nervous and didn't let them. So I can zone out pretty good and it doesn't matter where."

When asked about his favourite toys, he picked two. "I'm really proud of the very first Air Hog's plane because we gave kids access to flight in a way that they didn't have before. The other is the Stretch Armstrong that I had as a kid. There are no electronics, no sound, no motor. It only has one gimmick. You can pull it and it stretches. It just has great play. It inspires your imagination."

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