Toy Fair — Toyfair Magazine February 2017
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A Family Of Toy Inventors
Brian And Alex Kessler

Innovation – and the desire to create – is a running theme within the Kessler family. The family’s toy legacy began in 1950, when patriarch Milton Kessler introduced an early form of the hula hoop. Although Milton’s creativity spanned many industries over his life – including manufacturing, construction, and consumer goods – it was his one toy invention that sparked the entrepreneurial spirits of both his son and grandson. The younger Kessler men have followed in Milton’s footsteps to bring their passion for invention and play to countless children.

Milton’s hoop invention served as one of the first toy inspirations for his son, Brian Kessler, who founded Maui Toys in 1988. Nearly 50 years after that early hoop came to life, Brian infused new technology into the toy, making it easier for the hoop to stay up. It was one example of his desire to revamp classic toys for a new generation. The Wave Hoop was a major seller for Maui Toys, which Brian sold to Jakks Pacific in 2012. Continuing with tradition, Brian’s son, Alex Kessler, will be exhibiting his own toy and game collections at Toy Fair under the banner of his new startup, KessCo, which he founded in 2016.

Inspired Since Childhood

Reflecting on his childhood in Youngstown, Ohio, Brian said his father’s “strong inventive streak” inspired him to tap into his own creativity. He noted his father, who died in 1998, was frequently playing around with ideas at the office or talking about his newest invention. “Some of the things he invented were really out there and some things he invented worked,” he said.

The elder Kessler’s products included pushpull bottle caps, such as the ones used for water bottles or dish soap, that he originally designed for Procter & Gamble; weather stripping for windows; and rear windshield wipers. At the time of his death, he was looking to reinvent the soap dish, according to Brian. “He would always veer off and come up with some new ideas,” such as the early hoop, Brian added.

“He never went to college. He started a junk scrapping business in town to survive and help put food on the table for the family. In the back of the plant he started playing around with new material that had just kind of hit the world’s radar, and it was the early formation of plastic,” Brian said.

With that material, he created a toy hoop in 1950, which he called the spin hoop. At the time, Milton Kessler wasn’t very successful at selling his hoop. Eight years later the hula hooping fad took off, and Kessler, with the support of television personality Art Linkletter, jumped back into the hoop business selling roughly 100 million of his “Spin Hoops” over just a couple of years, according to Brian. But as soon as the hula hooping fad was over, Kessler was out of the toy business and on to something else. Throughout his life, the elder Kessler dabbled in junk scrapping, manufacturing, construction, and even alternative energy.

Brian Kessler spent the first decade of his career in energy, but eventually found himself in toys. “I always feel that those items that catch the consciousness of the consumer, creating that ‘Wow’ factor, are what really resonate with people,” he said. “Innovation is what makes people go ‘Aha.’”

Brian has an “insatiable curious appetite [for] how things work,” but he also has good business sense, said Vicki Dion, who worked under Kessler as the CFO and COO of Maui Toys from 2008-2012. “He is someone who is innovative, but also able to make money and make a profit.”

Yet it’s difficult to be successful in the toy world. “The distribution models that exist are not friendly to new [toy companies],” said Brian. “It takes a lot of money, a lot of perseverance, to get support in the retail world.”

Brian now spends his time helping early- stage companies succeed, including his son’s toy company. His venture capital firm, SBL Venture Capital, focuses on energy, transportation, health and well-being, consumer goods, and entertainment.

“There’s one unifying theme at SBL, which is innovation,” he said. “We try and invest in [only] 20-30 companies and have a much more active role in helping those companies succeed.”

Brian says SBL Venture Capital was impressed by Alex’s roster of ideas as well as his careful planning.

“He is another guy that looks at the world and seems to find those unique opportunities and is very creative,” Brian said. “We were impressed with the business model, the game plan, and the innovation, and yes, he is my son, but it was really the nuts and bolts [that impressed us].”

After working in online web production and gaming, as well as for Jakks Pacific, the younger Kessler realized he loved developing toys and games. Like his father, Alex is looking to reinvent classic toys, putting a new spin on them for today’s kids. The Los Angeles-based startup is releasing its first toys this spring. KessCo also has a line of board games that focus specifically on attracting Millennials and creating more social experiences.

Alex says he has learned by watching his father. “My grandfather’s legacy is one of creation, hard work, and invention. He loved creating,” he said, but it was his dad who truly took the lesson one step further by encouraging him not only to pursue his ideas, but to make sure he did his homework to successfully get them to market.

Alex also credits his entrepreneurial mother, Cynthia Wylie, for inspiring him to pursue his dreams. Wylie is CEO of Bloomers! Edutainment LLC, an interactive company educating young children on the world of gardening and healthy eating, and a 2015 nominee for the Women in Toys Designer or Inventor of the Year for her kid-friendly gardening product VeggiePOPS!

Dion, who also knows Alex, says she sees the same traits in him as she sees in Brian, and believes he has the ability to make his company successful. “I think he has that same curiosity about how things work,” she said. He is also a hard worker, diligent, and realistic in the sense that he is aware that not every product will be a home run, she added.

That is just one more lesson that the Kesslers can add to their legacy. “If you have an idea, go for it,” Alex said, but “if you’re going to do that – have a plan.”