Russell Berrie (1933-2002), the Bronx-born son of a jewelry salesman, was the chairman and CEO of Russ Berrie & Company, which he started in a tiny rented garage and grew into a $300 million business that revolutionized the way gifts and greeting cards are sold worldwide.
For all of his professional accomplishments, Russ believed that, as he put it, “There is nothing more important in life than helping a fellow human being.” In 1985, Russ created the Russell Berrie Foundation, which quickly distinguished itself for its entrepreneurial approach to philanthropy.
Russ saw his grants as social investments. He sought out passionate, energetic leaders with a sense of urgency around their missions.
Using the keen understanding of people that made him a brilliant salesman, Russ identified innovators working to make a difference in the areas closest to his heart, and bolstered them with the financial and strategic support crucial to success. In 1998, Fortune Magazine identified Russ as one of the 40 most most generous Americans.
“Russ had an amazing capacity to both envision the world as it could be, and figure out how to collaborate with others to make it so,” said Angelica Berrie, his wife and the president of the Russell Berrie Foundation. “Giving is not just about writing a check. It is a relationship between those who have the means to touch people’s lives and the causes that inspire their generosity.”
Russell Berrie grew up in the East Bronx, the youngest of three sons born to Naomi and Nathan Berrie. He traced his early ambitions to memories of sitting around the table at night, feeling left out as his father, a jewelry salesman, and brothers talked business.
“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,” he recalled.
When he was 10, he launched his first entrepreneurial venture, collecting discarded scorecards after games at Yankee Stadium. He would take the scorecards home, clean them up and sell them at the next day’s game.
When Russ was 17, his father sent him out selling door-to-door to retailers.
“I wasn’t too successful, but when I met with Dad at lunch time, he told me about a big department store he’d been trying to sell to for years without success, and he suggested that I go and try to sell to them,” Russ recalled. “I ended up writing an order for $1,000 and was absolutely thrilled. Years later, I discovered that Dad had set the ‘sale’ up with the buyer beforehand because he knew it would help build my confidence.”
Russ landed his first full-time job in 1956, as a salesman for a toy company. As he got to know the business, he identified a growth opportunity in the market for impulse gifts — inexpensive trinkets that shoppers might buy on a whim, after seeing them displayed on a shelf or near the check-out line. When Russ’s bosses declined to pursue his ideas, he struck out on his own, starting Russ Berrie & Company in a rented garage in Palisades Park, New Jersey, in 1963.
From the start, Russ Berrie & Company produced a string of hit products that quickly found their way onto countertops, desks and dashboards across the country. Among the company’s earliest creations: Fuzzy Wuzzies (tiny fur ball-like critters bearing messages like “You’re My Best Friend” or “Wild Thing”), troll dolls (squat gnomes with plumes of brightly colored hair) and the Bupkis Family (a motley collection of endearingly ugly rubber figurines). In 1966, annual sales revenue exceeded $1 million.
By 2001, the year before his death, Russ presided over a company that was known throughout the world by its nickname, RUSS, its slogan, “Make Someone Happy,” and its must-have products, from plush teddy bears to the resurgent troll dolls. Sales revenue topped $285 million that year, Forbes named the business as one of the top 200 small companies in America, and GiftWare Business magazine and Giftbeat ranked RUSS creations number one in seven product categories.
To get there, the company and its leader overcame monumental challenges. In the 1970s, the company began manufacturing its own products, an unwieldy operation that brought it to the brink of bankruptcy.
“I made a big error in trying to think that I was a manufacturer when I clearly was a sales and marketing person,” Russ recalled. “I had taken my eye off the ball.”
Russ quickly corrected course, selling off his factories by 1977. He considered the episode crucial to his development as a businessman.
“You cannot build a business without confronting challenges, surprises and disappointments along the way,” he said. “It is how you react to these challenges that determine success.”
Approach to Philanthropy
Russ believed in the power of “transformational giving,” partnering with energetic, visionary leaders to change the world for the better. He took an entrepreneurial approach to philanthropy, using his keen interpersonal skills to identify people and causes in which to invest and working closely with partners to hone strategies and set expectations.
His philanthropy evolved over the years, beginning with a $500 check to the United Jewish Appeal in the earliest days of Russ Berrie & Company and growing to include an expansive roster of leaders and institutions working in areas he considered critical, including health care and culture. In 1997, the Russell Berrie Foundation made its largest gift to date: a $13.5 million grant to create the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at Columbia University, a world-class diabetes facility with an ongoing relationship to our foundation.
That same year, Russ gave $100,000 to the first recipients of the Making a Difference Award, which has since become one of the foundation’s signature initiatives. Each year, exceptional New Jersey volunteers are publicly recognized for their achievements, receiving not only monetary awards as high as $50,000 but a treasured moment in the spotlight.
“It’s another way of looking at philanthropy — inspiring people to look at themselves and what they can do for the community,” Russ explained to The New York Times when the inaugural awards were announced. “I wanted to honor outstanding people — just common folks, not great scientists or people of great wealth. It’s one thing to write a check. It’s something else for people who work really hard and spend a lifetime giving up a lot of themselves.”
“People don’t realize how much power each one of us has,” he continued. “It doesn’t have to be money; it could be the teacher who paid extra attention. Let’s help each other. The more we do that, the less we’ll be at each other’s throats.”