LEGO my turnaround: When innovation hurts
Lego earnings skyrocket ... and so do its plastic figurines.
LEGO… who doesn't love those little plastic bricks? But what do we know about the Danish company that makes the iconic toy? For one thing -- though it's hard to believe now -- LEGO almost went out of business in the early 2000s.
In his new book “Brick by Brick: How LEGO Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry”, University of Pennsylvania Professor David C. Robertson writes about the company, its near-death experience, and how it came back to life.
LEGO for starters
Founded in 1932, LEGO is a privately-owned family business based in Billund, Denmark -- or as Robertson calls it "Nowhere, Denmark."
"There's three hours of nothing in every direction from the headquarters," he says.
The name of the company comes from the Danish phrase "leg godt", which means to "play well." And for many years, LEGO did just that, until the late 1990s.
Bricks fall apart
The popularity of video games, cheap Chinese-made toys, and shifting trends in the toy industry all weighed on LEGO’s sales in the 1990s.
"They found that kids [were] getting older, younger," says Robertson. "They [were] moving away from all the traditional toys, not just LEGO, but Barbie and Hotwheels."
Lots of innovation, not a lot of LEGO
So LEGO brought in a turnaround specialist and innovated like crazy. But its new line of products weren't very LEGO-y.
"There's a whole line of toys called Jack Stone, where you could snap them together in a couple minutes," Robertson says. "Parents were really disappointed, kids snapped together the Jack Stone in 10 minutes and then were off and running around the house again."
Turnaround a turnaround
Sales suffered and a whole new management team was brought in to refocus the company.
"[LEGO] talked to [their] customers, asked them what the brand meant to them," says Robertson. And the customers spoke very clearly, notes Robertson, "It is about the construction experience."
The company returned to its traditional product: the simple brick. Robertson says the move worked.
"They've been able to comeback," he says. "For the last five years, they've been growing sales at 24 percent per year and profits at 40 percent per year."
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