BY Zlati Meyer, Detroit Free Press
It has walked down staircases all over the world -- from Moscow's Red Square to Mayan ruins in Mexico to Saddam Hussein's former palaces -- but every Slinky's first steps ultimately start in a southeastern Michigan town.
The classic toy, as much a part of generations of American childhoods as Red Flyer wagons and Barbie, calls Plymouth home. In 1998, the world-famous brand was acquired by a local company, now called POOF-Slinky, which has its roots in the automotive supplier industry.
Today, the 67-year-old Slinky is celebrating 350 million sales and a recent infusion of cash from a private equity firm that will enable it grow its product line. The simple coil has outlasted toy fads such as Cabbage Patch Kids, which were at the height of their popularity in the 1980s.
"We view the Slinky as clearly an American icon. The simplicity of the product, the low cost of the product, the various styles the product is manufactured in, all lend itself to one generation teaching the next generation about Slinky. We don't run extensive radio and TV ads," said POOF-Slinky President Ray Dallavecchia Jr.
Dallavecchia bought the POOF brand, a toymaker best known for foam balls, in 1991 from Automotive Plastics Technologies. POOF was introduced in early '80s as a division of Detroit Plastic Molding, an automotive supplier.
Dallavecchia wouldn't release annual sales figures for the privately held company, saying only they're in the tens of millions of dollars. POOF-Slinky has an annual growth rate of 20%, he said.
"Slinky was (the) best single transaction of my business career," he said.
The company sells 500-plus Slinky products. The traditional metal one also has plastic and light-up siblings. Related merchandise includes T-shirts, key chains, candy dispensers and games. Also popular are custom-logoed Slinkys that companies buy for employees or as promotional items. A 14-karat gold Slinky retails for $100-$150. And Slinky Dog, which debuted in 1952, enjoyed a renaissance in 1995 after starring in the movie Toy Story.
One noteworthy bomb, though, was the fabric-covered Slinky earlier this decade.
Robert Farinholt, a partner in Greenwich, Conn.-based Propel Equity Partners, declined to say how much money the private equity firm invested in July, saying only that it was a "substantial investment." Propel is attracted to the toy industry because it's highly fragmented, with lots of small competitors.
The capital will be used to "expand their product line, expand into new distribution channels, both e-commerce online and overseas. The lion's share of their sales is here domestically," said Farinholt, a former Slinky owner. "Everybody loves the Slinky. That's kind of a secret formula that's difficult to define and something, as finance guys, that is hard to explain. ... It is such a lasting, iconic, nostalgic brand that everyone relates to their childhood. Everyone has good reaction and emotional connection to the brand. It's one of the reasons why we were drawn to it."s
POOF-Slinky employs about 75 people in Plymouth -- 35 in the corporate office and 40 making POOF-branded products.
All Slinkys are manufactured at the 40-person Hollidaysburg, Pa., plant; the Slinky Dog is assembled in China.
Managing the worldwide brand comes with two big responsibilities: protecting the brand from the sharks of the business world and fielding e-mails from children who ask why the company can't make a Slinky that doesn't twist or break.
The request for an unbreakable Slinky is universal even if the dimensions and standards for staircases can differ from country to country. For example, there are fewer steps in a typical flight in Mexico than in Canada, Dallavecchia said.
Slinkys are sold at more than 35,000 retailers, ranging from big-box stores to museums, zoos and grocery stores.
Little Monsters, a toy store in Lake Orion, is among those that keep Slinkys on its shelves -- $5.99 for a regular one, $7.99 for the retro version. The scene is often this, according to shop owner Chris McKenna: A parent or grandparent who hasn't thought about a Slinky in a long time spots one in the store and brings it over to the child and says, "I used to have one of these. Let me show you how it works."
"It stimulates the imagination. It's not so much what it does; it's what you can do with it," she said, pointing out that a Slinky is good for any age and gender and makes a great desk toy. "Certainly, everyone needs a Slinky. ... It's certainly not a top-seller, but it's a staple and classic. We'll always have a Slinky in the store. We have to have it."
Slinky debuted in 1945 at the Gimbels department store in Philadelphia. The first 400 sold out in 90 minutes -- so goes company lore.
According to Christopher Bensch, chief curator for The Strong, a Rochester, N.Y., museum, which houses the National Toy Hall of Fame, people at the time thought it'd be a one-season-and-gone toy. Why pay $1, which was outrageous at the time, for a hunk of metal in a little bit of packaging? But Slinky survived as a mainstay. Its popularity seems to come in 20-year cycles as each new generation that discovers its charm.
"It remains unique in its appeal for the Slinkity sound that sticks in people's mind," he said. "It's especially that walking down stairs has a kind of amazement factor."