The Russell Berrie Foundation
Channel Quote
Jewish Renaissance

About Russ Berrie

On his background and how he started Russ Berrie and Company, Inc., in his own words:

Russ Berrie

“I come from common roots having grown up in the Bronx and with no silver spoon, no pedigree. I dared to dream big dreams. I am convinced that most people can achieve their dreams and beyond if they have the determination to keep trying.” (i)

“My father had a small jewelry business…and I remember sitting at the table at night listening to my brothers and my father talk about the business and just feeling out of it. I wanted very badly to be a success and to show my father and my brothers that I could do as well as they could.” (ii)

“When you grew up in the Bronx, you had to be a baseball fan. So I figured out a way to make some money. I was about ten years old, and I would go over to Yankee Stadium on Saturday after the game. I would pick up all the discarded scorecards, bring them home and clean them up. The next day early on Sunday afternoon I would go back out to Yankee Stadium and I would start selling these score cards outside the stadium.  I would sell them for ten cents. It was the same price they were selling them for inside the stadium. I would generally pocket $10-$15 for that work. It’s interesting to note that the cost of this scorecard was zero and I was selling it for ten cents. My gross profit was pretty good, and I have been looking to make the same gross profit margins ever since. Unsuccessfully, of course. But I learned, then, to take advantage of an opportunity, to be creative and make a dollar.

My first full time real job came from answering an ad in The New York Times. I got a job as a salesman with a toy company in 1956.. (iii)

“As I gained more and more experience, I felt that some of the ideas that I had might be better than the company where I was working. For example, one my ideas, which later became my first product, Fuzzy Wuzzies, combined the message of a greeting card with the soft appeal of a plush animal. I used to go to these companies and give them all sorts of ideas to improve the products they manufactured….At the same time, I had a real sense of urgency about my own success and I felt a need to meet new challenges.” (iv)

Russ Berrie with a sales associate and products (1950’s)

“…I decided to start my own business and I had $500. I drove around looking for a warehouse about the size of a garage and couldn’t find one to meet my budget of $50.  Finally, I came across a three-family house with a little sign on it, 'Garage For Rent.' The garage was attached to the building.  I knocked on the door and a gentleman answered.  I asked him how much he wanted to rent that garage.  I was expecting him to say '$75,' hoping he might say '$50,' and he said '$35.'   I said '$35?'  'If you take it right away, I’ll give it to you for $30,' he said. That was my first lesson in negotiation. Now, when I go to the Orient and I visit the factories there, I ask, 'How much is that?' They say, '$25 a dozen.' I say '$25?'  They say, 'We’ll give it to you for $20.' It works every time. You ought to try it.” (v)

“Since I’d been a rep for seven years, I was familiar with most of the products in the toy industry…. And I knew that certain products simply didn’t have a good distribution. So I decided I’d wholesale-buy directly from the companies and warehouse and distribute these products myself.” (vi)

“….I did everything – selling, packing, and even typing invoices. We grossed $60,000 in sales in our first year of business….” (vii)

“I’ve never thought of myself as a pioneer… Other people call us that because we tried these things early on, but I’m not used to it yet…. Inevitably, when someone came in, they were buying a card to accompany some kind of gift… I figured, if they were coming in for the card, why should they go elsewhere for the gift? I was able to convince the stores in my area to carry products which would tie in with their cards. If you remember the old greeting card stands, they had shelf space on top – room that generally went unused. I convinced the owners to put our merchandise there –plush stuffed animals, or some other impulse items….They’re something you don’t really have to think twice about buying, because they’re generally not expensive.” (viii)

“I collaborated with a friend of mine – an artist at an advertising firm. We sat down together, I gave him my ideas, and we would draw them. We sent the drawings to the factory, and they would make them.” (ix)

“I continued to go out to sell, but this time I was selling my own product.” (x)

“…I learned to develop a feel for the marketplace. That is why sales experience is so important for the budding entrepreneur, even a seasoned entrepreneur. Through sales you get a feel for the customer.  You develop ways to communicate with customers. You discover what they’re likely to respond positively to and what they would probably not want. Years of sales experience, getting into the thick of things will be invaluable to you…As our business grew I realized you must have people smarter and more qualified than you are in certain parts of a business.” (xi)

“By 1965, we were doing $750,000, and that’s when I quit my job as a sales rep. We did $1.1 million in 1966, $4.1 million in 1969 and $7 million in 1970.” (xii)

“I first traveled to the Orient in 1969, and by that time I had full-time designers and had products made for me in Japan.  Business continued to grow until 1973 when there was a dock strike and the yen almost doubled in value, which made it just too expensive to buy from Japan.  So I bought or set up factories in Paterson, New Jersey, Florida, California and Haiti.

What a catastrophe! You cannot build a business without confronting challenges, surprises and disappointments along the way and that truly was the case here. I actually was trying to manufacture products just to keep the machinery going. It is how you react to these challenges that determine success.

I learned one very important lesson very quickly. Manufacturers should manufacture, accountants should count and salespeople should sell. I made a big error in trying to think that I was a manufacturer when I clearly was a sales and marketing person. I had taken my eye off the ball, gotten into manufacturing and almost bankrupt the business. Fortunately, by 1977 I got rid of all my factories. I either closed them or sold them and went back to Korea and then had others manufacture our products.” (xiii)

 

Russ Berrie leading a sales meeting at the RUSS headquarters showroom (1975)

“I’ve always viewed the pitcher as half-full, never half-empty. I’ve always been optimistic and relied on myself to create my own success….And life isn’t just a 9-inning or 4-quarter game. If you fall behind or run into obstacles, you always have another chance to try harder. If you’re driving a car and you come to a detour in the road, you don’t just throw your hands up and give up, you follow the detour until you get back on the right highway.

Even today, with every decision I make I have doubts, but I’m not afraid of making a decision – I’m not incapacitated by it. A lot of people just don’t take action because they can’t handle the possibility of making a mistake. But I’ll make the decision and I’m wrong, fine. I’ll go on and the next time I’ll get it right.” (xiv)

“The company grew rapidly, and by 1984 when it was doing about $100 million, we went public on the New York Stock Exchange. Today you will find our products worldwide and our sales are about three hundred million dollars.” (xv)

“I simply love to come to work each day. I find it very exciting. I’m 64 years old and I hope that, age 94, I’ll still be at gift shows, at the Jacob Javitz Center in New York, selling all my products.” (xvi)