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Russell Berrie, 69; Toy Seller and Master Marketer of the Cute, Cuddly and Cheap

December 29, 2002|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Russell Berrie, master marketer of things most people didn't need but had to have, from small teddy bears to plastic trolls, has died. He was 69.

The founder, chairman and chief executive officer of Russ Berrie & Co. died Wednesday of heart failure in Oakland, N.J., where his company is based.

The one-time Bronx street kid and college dropout spent many years selling toys for other businessmen. More than four decades ago, Berrie offered his boss the bright idea of creating a few cutesy items that could be sold for $1.

When he was turned down -- the employer couldn't understand how to make money on such low-priced merchandise -- Berrie set himself up as an independent representative for various toy manufacturers and began selling some of his own concoctions along with others' products.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 31, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 7 inches; 279 words Type of Material: Correction
Russell Berrie obituary -- The obituary of Russell Berrie in Sunday's California section incorrectly said he died in Oakland, N.J. He died at his home in Englewood, N.J. In addition, the obituary stated that he married his third wife, Angelica, in 1993. In fact, she was his fourth wife.

He designed his own items to be sold for $1, beginning with the imaginative "fuzzy wuzzies" -- tiny critters made out of sheepskin with moving eyes that bore various heartfelt messages. He called them "three-dimensional greeting cards," and they caught on quickly.

In 1963, with $500, a rented garage for storage and a closet in his apartment for an office, Berrie founded his company. Sales went from $60,000 the first year to $250,000 the second and $750,000 the third.

Over nearly four decades, Berrie offered the latest "impulse gifts," which have included coffee mugs, various types of greeting cards, kitchen magnets, candles, picture frames and perennially popular stuffed animals, along with -- whenever they were in style -- trolls. Despite inflation, he kept prices at less than $10 for most items.

"We give you value, and we put a smile on people's faces," Berrie said in a CNBC interview the day before he died.

The little trolls, based on characters from Scandinavian folklore, were introduced in the U.S. toy market by Thomas Dam of Denmark a couple of years before Berrie went into business for himself.

But Berrie, who admitted personally identifying with the trolls, saw the expressive little characters as something he could cash in on. During their spurts of popularity in the 1970s, the '80s and again in the '90s, Berrie became one of the top three marketers of trolls in the country.

Oh, sure, there were lawsuits. But a federal court ruled that garden-variety trolls belonged in the public domain, and said no one company -- not even Dam -- owned exclusive rights to the generic troll design.

When Berrie married his third wife, Angelica, in 1993, they decorated their wedding reception tables with 9-inch-high blue- and pink-haired trolls. Bride and groom trolls topped their cake.

After all, trolls helped provide a current annual revenue for Russ Berrie & Co. of somewhere around $300 million.

Berrie, who owned 26% of the company's stock as of September, according to Bloomberg News business wire, made only one admitted misjudgment with his business. In the early 1970s, he diverted his attention and energy from sales and marketing -- always his strong points -- and set up five factories to make his own products.

By 1977, he had learned his lesson and turned to independent manufacturers in Asia to subcontract production of his gift items, while he concentrated on selling and product development.

"Manufacturers should manufacture, accountants should account and salesmen should sell," he told the Bergen (N.J.) Record in 1993.

As a boy, Berrie was greatly impressed by the generosity of the New York Police Athletic League, which enabled local police to take him and other street kids to Yankee Stadium for baseball games every summer.

When he grew up and could afford it, Berrie became a philanthropist, beginning with a $500 gift to the United Jewish Appeal.

Berrie went on to donate tens of millions of dollars to hospitals, including $13.5 million in 1998 to the College of Physicians & Surgeons of Columbia University to establish the Russell Berrie Medical Science Pavilion and the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center, in honor of his mother. He also gave lavishly to colleges and youth support groups in the eastern United States and in Israel.

Berrie donated his time as well as money, serving as chairman of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding and working to promote the Special Olympics.

His Russell Berrie Foundation earned the 2001 outstanding foundation award of the New Jersey chapter of the Assn. of Fundraising Professionals. Of all his personal accolades, Berrie most prized his 1998 designation by Fortune magazine as one of the 40 most generous Americans.

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