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Layoffs Test Mettle of Mattel's Chief

April 16, 1999|ABIGAIL GOLDMAN and GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

To those who have questioned whether Mattel Chief Executive Jill Barad is capable of making the tough choices needed to run a top U.S. company, Thursday's move to eliminate 3,000 jobs showed just how tough she can be.

And although analysts and investors were supportive of her decision and bullish on the company, details of her restructuring plan have yet to be released and a battle for Christmas supremacy has yet to be decided.

To some on Wall Street that all means the jury is still out on the 47-year-old executive's leadership.

Barad said Thursday that she has become used to questions about her management style, though she bristled during a conference call when a Wall Street analyst asked her to comment on them.

"I'm a woman, and I'm going to be a poster child," Barad said. "I'm clearly going to be taking punches for quite some time."

Those punches have come from all corners. Critics say she's too soft, initiating flexible hours, a two-week Christmas break and half-day Fridays. Others say she is a control fanatic, quashing dissent and ruling from an imperial perch.

David Leibowitz, a managing director at Burnham Securities, said a good number of those comments come from the fact that Barad took the helm at Mattel at the same time the company suffered from problems out of her control--namely, an inventory restructuring at Toys R Us and a generally turbulent time in the toy industry.

"The fates were not particularly kind to Jill; in fact they probably conspired against her," Leibowitz said. "She took over at the exact time when the market had already peaked."

Barad came to Mattel in 1981 as a product manager after leaving the work force for 14 months to care for the first of her two sons. She had no experience in the industry.

In a short period, however, she worked her way to the position of marketing director for Barbie. There, Barad initiated a Barbie overhaul, bringing the toy she loved into a modern age, where a younger generation of girls could appreciate a new, career-oriented doll.

Under her watch, sales went from $320 million a year in 1985 to $415 million in 1986, and Barad went on to become vice president, senior vice president and eventually, president of marketing.

By 1990, she was named co-president, and she became president and chief operating officer in 1992 as Mattel's girls' business soared. She became chief executive in 1997.

Even as her duties expanded, analysts said, Barad continued to monitor closely the Barbie business, fueling her reputation as a micro-manager who would run an entire corporation the way she once directed the Barbie division.

Last month, after Chief Operating Officer Bruce Stein and Fisher-Price President Gary Baughman resigned, Barad appointed a new head of the boys' division, replacing Stein. She did not, however, name a new chief operating officer, taking over those duties herself.

During an interview after Mattel's conference call with analysts, Barad scoffed at critics who maintain that Stein left because of her management style:

"The fact is that I worked with a man, and that man is no longer here . . . somehow it then gets said that I don't get along with men."

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