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Downing ducks helps toy firm play with the big kids

Harold Chizick of Toronto's Spin Master, the world's number-three toy maker, remembers a time when finding employees locally was anything but child's play.

"Ten years ago, we couldn't find talented people with relevant toy experience here," says the vice-president of global promotions.

However, as the 16-year-old company has been on its rapid rise, the toy talent pool in Toronto has more than kept pace. There is now a steady stream of designers, developers and marketers moving between Spin Master and a growing cluster of local underlings, chief among them being Markham's Thinkway Toys.

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Thinkway has become one of the top seven toy producers in the world, each distributing their designed-in-Toronto, made-in-Asia products to more than 50 countries. Canadian toy makers account for a disproportionate 6-8% chunk of a $21.7-billion global market, says Thinkway senior vice-president John Barton.

Thinkway's 15-year relationship with Pixar Animation Studios is translating into real-life profits this year as characters from the recently released Toy Story 3 movie populate Christmas wish lists. As the licence-holder for Toy Story-themed items, Thinkway is currently churning out some of the hottest toys in the famously faddish industry, such as the talking and articulating Buzz Lightyear and Woody the Sheriff action figures. Among its licences, it counts characters from Warner Brothers, Lucasfilm and Marvel.

But Thinkway's 50 Toronto employees do more than just mimic the look of cartoon characters, says Mr. Barton. They take the lead from founder and president Albert Chan, himself a computer programmer.

"We don't just make toys, we add motors, chips and sensors so the toys come alive," says Mr. Barton.

In a globally competitive and increasingly tech-driven world, toys must be innovative or be ignored.

Ian Chisholm is a marketer, not a toy designer. Still he claims some credit for inspiring Interactive Toy Concepts' major break as it learns to play with the big kids of the global toy market.

He was in the company's Toronto headquarters one day pestering co-workers with a radio-controlled flying bird when one colleague pointed a finger and pretended to blast it out of the air. And so Interactive's Duck Hunter was born.

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The game, in which players use infrared pistols to shoot radio-controlled ducks (now also geese, aliens and skeet), went on to be Interactive's biggest seller over the past two years. Every downed duck has helped the company compete with other local companies.

According to Mr. Chisholm, if Interactive Toy Concepts can grow to rival Toronto's two global players it will be thanks to its background in technological innovation.

Four years ago, Interactive was known as a company for radio-control hobbyists, distributing mainly to Radio Shack and The Source. It has since gone mainstream, putting hobby-quality toys in big box retailers and exporting to 12 countries.

Interactive's technical expertise was recognized last year when international peers declared Duck Hunter a finalist for Boy Toy of the Year. Mr. Chisholm says that success could begin to seem like a pile of feathers on the rec room floor after industry reps get a look at the new Medal of Honor series he is premiering two weeks from now in Las Vegas.

Born of an exclusive licensing deal with the popular video game maker Electronic Arts, the series features five radio controlled vehicles (ATV, pick-up truck, helicopter and two tanks) that battle and disable each other with infrared artillery.

Holding up a mock-up of what the packaged box will look like, Mr. Chisholm insists, "No one has seen anything like this."

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For the moment, cardboard cutouts hold the place of yet unmanufactured vehicles. But Mr. Chisholm doesn't have to look far for examples of how big things could go once things are put into play.

When it comes to child-driven cash register sales, 16-year-old Spin Master comes in behind only long-established giants Hasbro and Mattel. As a marketing machine, it acquires, develops, packages and distributes the kind of trendy action figures and remote controlled toys that retailers are happy to devote large swaths of shelving to. Lately Spin Master, which employs 300 people in Toronto, has been making incursions into the unfamiliar territory of girls' dolls and board games. Its 26 brands include Bakugan, Liv, Zoobles and Air Hogs.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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