Brayden Fabris, a sophomore in the toy design program at Otis College of… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)
When a toy designer's young daughter becomes fascinated by the gel-like beads in a flower vase, there is only one conclusion to draw: "There has got to be a toy in here somewhere," says Ron Brawer, a partner in the Maya Group and a toy industry veteran.
The fast-growing Torrance company has gone on to develop dozens of playthings based on those transparent polymer pellets. One of those toys, a modified water gun called the Xploderz XBlaster 200, was a finalist for the 2012 Outdoor Toy of the Year Award from the Toy Industry Assn. in New York.
The toy industry is an important segment of the Southern California economy. It accounts for 9,500 jobs in Los Angeles and Orange counties; 276 businesses contribute more than $53 million in annual taxes, according to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.
Nationwide, toys racked up $21 billion in sales last year, much of them designed domestically, according to estimates from the research firm NPD Group Inc. for the Toy Industry Assn. About $2.1 billion of that was manufactured in the U.S.
Toy design in Southern California is rivaled only by New York, and the region is home to some of the world's best-known brands.
There's Mattel Inc. in El Segundo (the maker of Barbie and Hot Wheels), Jakks Pacific Inc. in Malibu (licensee of Pokemon and Hello Kitty) and Imperial Toy of North Hills, which produces licensed products for brands such as "SpongeBob SquarePants" and "Transformers." There's also MGA Entertainment Inc. in Van Nuys (Bratz dolls) and Jada Toys Inc. in the City of Industry (Tonka and My Little Pony) among many others.
"This is the mecca of toy development," said Brawer, the creative force behind the Maya Group's marketing and sales. "It's the 405 Toy Corridor. Between Irvine and Van Nuys, eight of the world's biggest toy companies are either located there or have offices there."
Toy design "is huge here," said Peter Wachtel, president of the Toy Assn. of Southern California, who estimates that the region's toy industry directly or indirectly employs as many as 20,000 workers.
"Southern California and New York are the hot spots," said Wachtel, who said that companies are drawn to the Southland by several factors, including the region's huge warehouse and distribution system.
Wachtel pointed out that the area is home to the nation's two biggest container seaports, Los Angeles and Long Beach; is served by the nation's two biggest transcontinental rail systems, Union Pacific and BNSF; and has two important freight airports, LAX and Ontario. The remnants of the region's aerospace industry also have been a source of design expertise.
"These are huge pluses," Wachtel said. "And when the East Coast has gone to sleep, Los Angeles is still up and working."
Another factor is an abundance of local talent, said Isaac Larian, chief executive of MGA Entertainment.
"A lot of people, especially creative people, just want to live here," Larian said. "We find most of the people we need right here. We hardly ever hire a designer from outside of the state."
Charles Woo, chief executive of Megatoys of Commerce, said Hollywood and the entertainment industry draw talent too.
"That creativity is important to have around," Woo said. "There are a lot of factories in China, but not a lot of that kind of creativity. If I put an ad out for toy designers, I will hear from hundreds of local people."
One analyst said the region's schools are key in developing that talent.
"You have some of the best design programs in the U.S. here," said Edward Woo, senior research analyst who follows the toy industry for Ascendiant Capital Markets in Irvine and is not related to Charles Woo.
And among those schools, the one that is mentioned most is the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.
Seventy-five of Otis' approximately 1,800 students are in its toy design department, about 15 students more than usual, said Deborah Ryan, who chairs the toy design program.
"We get a different kind of student," Ryan said, "because the young people who come here know this is an intensive program. They tend to be very mature and focused."
Otis has become a virtual employment engine for the toy community. Among the 18 members of the toy design program's class of 2012, the only two who haven't found work aren't even looking yet, Ryan said. The others have found jobs with Mattel, Spin Master Ltd., Hasbro Inc., Imperial Toys, Jakks Pacific, Jada Toys and Razer USA Ltd., and in movie and set design.
The Maya Group story figures prominently in the Southern California toy landscape for a lot of these reasons.
Brawer was pulled into the Southern California orbit from New Jersey when Mattel acquired the company he worked for, Tyco Toys Inc., in 1996.
For the next 13 years, he honed his skills at Mattel and MGA Entertainment. For the latter, he helped grow the Bratz brand into one of the bestselling toy lines. Brawer then spent two years in London as president of the company's European operations.