Alumni Stories - In Focus

From Bloomies to Barbies: Spotlight on Richard Dickson '86
From Bloomies to Barbies: Spotlight on Richard Dickson '86

When Richard Dickson '86, Senior Vice President of Marketing, Media, and Entertainment Worldwide for Mattel, stopped by Dwight last month to say hello to Chancellor Spahn, little did we know that he brought with him enough stories to keep his children, and eventually his grandchildren, entertained for years. From Dwight's old bowling alley to the rarefied world of cosmetics at Bloomingdale's, and from Silicon Valley start-ups to transforming Barbie around the globe, Richard has journeyed long and far. He still wears his hair long and sports cufflinks like an old school New Yorker, but he now boasts a golden Southern California tan as well. Richard will be hosting Dwight's first non-New York City alumni event on July 16 at Mattel's headquarters in Los Angeles (see ad page 65).

Before we start, we pulled out your yearbook and couldn't help but notice the interesting haircut...

Yeah, I was very Duran-Duran...

It looks like everyone was! Why does the yearbook refer to you "being found in Aca Joe?"

My family owned Aca Joe at the time. Aca Joe is an apparel company. They had expanded the company from the designer Joe's original store in Acapulco, took it public, and had several hundred stores within a few years. I worked in the store on 75th and Columbus and was head-to-toe in Aca Joe. It was a hell of a fun brand to be associated with at that time.

I was going to say, the ladies must have loved you!

I had a good rap, there's no doubt. [laughs]

So what was your first memory of Dwight?

I'll tell you. My first memory of Dwight was my paranoia of getting my tie right every day. I remember literally one morning during the first week of school, waking up and having an incredibly challenging time tying my tie properly. The last thing I wanted was someone saying, "Look - he doesn't know how to tie a tie!" So even though it was cool to put on your tie when you got to school, for the first few weeks I was putting on my tie before school because I was just too paranoid that I would totally forget how to tie it... Polo piquet shirts were "it" at the time and we'd lift our collars up so you'd see the whole tie around your neck. Mr. Spahn would run around telling everyone to put their collars down...

But really what most jumps out are the relationships. It was an intimate setting and felt very much like a little family in a big city. Relationships with faculty, with students, and I guess the location itself – our campus [on East 67th Street] was kind of quirky. Our gym had a bowling alley. I actually thought it was the coolest thing. I mean, nobody bowled, but when I first got to Dwight I was like, "Wow – my school has a bowling alley!" The whole thing felt kind of vintage, but in a modern way, where you were able to be creative and express yourself, but with traditional guidelines that just felt right.

Any particular faculty members stand out?

Ms. Bab (current Dwight College Guidance Counselor) was my English teacher. She was tough, but caring. I know at the time we thought she was more tough than caring, but in the end she had kind of a soft spot. Mr. Gooden was probably one of the most influential teachers in my life. He was a pusher, but he had humor. You felt he really loved what he did and loved watching students excel... We had a guy at the time, Dr. Yeager (retired in 2007), he was always a character. I mean - whew! CHAR-AC-TER! He was just classic. Then we had Mr. Cadra (current Director of Operations) and Mr. Fisher for gym – they were great... After all these years, I can literally name eight, nine, ten of my teachers – and I can't name one professor from college. It really goes to show the level of intimacy, whether or not you realize it at the time, it really does come alive later in life.

So what fueled your interest in retail?

I think it was obviously in my blood. My family was in the fashion business. My dad held CFO and COO posts at Ellen Tracy and Calvin Klein, and my mom was President of Aca Joe, so fashion and retail were really familiar to me and fun. Bloomingdale's was the preeminent training program. If you were going to get your start and your 'masters' in retail and brand management, it was going to be at Bloomingdale's, which I would say today is still the best career experience I've had in terms of building a foundation from the bottom up, to really understand all the details of retail and brand management, and to learn to buy, and the ability to methodically grow your responsibilities and experience to include more categories. Every time you got more responsibility, it was like a bigger checkbook. And it was so close to home – I grew up on 66th and Madison, and Bloomingdale's on 59th was like our hometown store. And it was easy. People say you gotta swim in the right water, and I just immediately got into the fast lane there because everything felt so familiar.

And you were there ten years?

Yeah, almost ten years. I started in '90 and left in '99. Every year, I thought it would be my last, but I was addicted to the pace and lucky that the senior management, including the CEO, took an interest in my development. Every time I was bored they gave me a new area, from Boys to Girls, then Home and Men's Designers and Men's Sportswear, and finally I found myself in Cosmetics.

Cosmetics? What was that like?

One day, the head of 59th Street came by and said they were moving me up, and I said, "Great!" and they said they were moving me to cosmetics. I thought, "Cosmetics?! What?! I'm moving to cosmetics?! I don't know a thing about makeup and I don't really care to." And the CEO said that if I was going to grow in retailing, I needed to understand the beauty business, not only because of the way it's run and its brilliant marketing, but because it's the highest profit margin in the store and brings the most traffic. So I saluted and said, "Ay! Ay!"

I became the Department Manager at 59th Street, which was just absolutely bizarre. The speed and the personalities of the most powerful marketing people in the world of beauty who are all obsessed with their six inches of space and all of their bizarre after-lives and part-time habits - it just became another one of those brilliant experiences that I ended up loving, and I found myself addicted to the cosmetics business because of the science of marketing and understanding how to create an image that people will buy into and pay a fortune for a product that down the block in the same kind of bottle is a lot cheaper - what makes that work?! I found that to be incredible. And I grew in Cosmetics from Department Manager to Associate Buyer to Buyer to Group Buyer until I was running all of the most important brands like Lauder, and developing new brands and concepts.

So what then prompted you to leave?

The dotcom scene was thriving, and I had a lot of interest in that space because of the entrepreneurial opportunities. I'd launched a lot of new brands that were acquired by big conglomerates, and I was helping shape what these brands were, but not participating in 'the big win.' So I ended up resigning and giving seven months notice. It wasn't about going to the competition. I said to the CEO that I needed to go and try this, and I might be coming back, and I hope you'll take me. And I'm still out, and doing all right... you still never know!

What happened?

I met a few people with the same interests in beauty and we formed a brand called, that again was one of these wild and eclectic experiences. It felt like it was five years of work when it was really less than two years before we were lucky enough to be acquired by Estée Lauder.

So were you somewhere in Silicon Valley drinking lots of Mountain Dew and sleeping on couches?

Yeah, that's right. We went from starting a company with backpacks and cell phones to using hotel lobbies to meet and greet. We were proud members of every United club there was... I lived on a plane between San Francisco and New York City. All of the merchandise and relationships were in the City, but all of the technology and core competencies were in San Francisco. Then all of a sudden, we were acquired by Estée Lauder, and I found myself in an office in their building and my window faced Bloomingdale's, and I thought, "God, this is wild." Here I was running the Lauder business at Bloomingdale's with no intention to go to the other side, and now two years later I was on the other side...

But I had known the President of Mattel who, on and off for some time, had chatted to me about coming to Mattel. One day over lunch in New York she said, "I have the perfect assignment for you! I want you to take Barbie the Doll, and create Barbie the brand, and make it a lifestyle brand business model. What do you think?" I thought, "I don't know much about Barbie or dolls, I don't have a daughter, I was an only child growing up and don't have a sister," but I said I'd need to digest it. So I went home and shared this with my wife and a couple friends, and they were all like, "Holy Mackerel! That's amazing!" It sparked that entrepreneurial interest and it tapped into my marketing savviness of creating brands, and so I took it.

What was the transition like?

The first year I spent 70% of my time running around the world studying the brand in each country. In China, Australia, Mexico, Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, Japan... literally everywhere, what were girls' habits, how were they spending their time, how were they spending money?

Any interesting cross-cultural lessons pulled from those travels?

Girls around the world are interested in imaginative play. They look at Barbie as a conduit for them to be anything that they want to be. There's also an innate connection between girls and pink, just like boys and blue. So these are all powerful traits for Barbie. The other interesting thing is that all around the world girls habits started to change... girls were starting to spend a lot more time in sports, not only talking about sports, but actually doing sports. And then despite the implosion of the dotcom world, a lot of kids started to engage in the online community, and so all this suggested there was no better time to think about brand extension. Today, eight years later, Barbie is now the #1 lifestyle brand for girls, we have launched 11 DVD titles that have all hit #1 on the charts with over 40 million copies, and it is a major thriving business for Mattel. We started back in 2000 and today is the #1 girls' website in the world, with 65 million visitors averaging 38 minutes per visit. We launched, the first virtual site for girls, and it's doing incredibly well. During launch we had a million unique visitors every month. It's the fastest growing virtual world for girls. And we expanded the brand into 45 different categories – apparel, accessories, sporting goods, publishing, beauty, you name it – and today it totals over $1.5 billion.

So of all of those product extensions, is there one that you smile at in particular?

Every category has had its moment of glory because we were always expanding into new spaces. Even last month we were sponsoring the LPGA Tour here in Palm Springs with Barbie's golf clubs. We're the first girls' brand to have real, authentic golf gear. Golf clubs are now the hottest thing for girls. So each category has had its 'win,' but Barbie is obviously the mothership. We even created a 'Barbie Loves Mac,' limited edition make-up collection. It was the single most successful launch and program that Mac has done. And we were actually written into the Annual Report for Estée Lauder!

On a more challenging note, what happened with the toy recall last year – and how did you deal with this?

It started with our manufacturing guys saying that they had discovered a problem with a disproportionate amount of lead paint in a couple of our products, which was caught by our safety checks, but some of the products had already been released. So the question of how to handle the ones that had been released came up. Not out of the ordinary – whenever we have safety issues we address them very quickly. The difference between this one and others was that we also had a high-powered magnet concern happening simultaneously. One of our brands, Polly Pocket, has a high-powered magnet in some of the toys, which we've been using for years. We discovered that in Canada a child had ingested not one, but two of these magnets – not from one of our toys – and they found themselves in his system and did a number on his intestines. So when our designers made management aware of this, we decided to do a release citing both concerns to retailers and let consumers know that we're going to do the right thing. We would let them know that even though we'd been using these for years without a problem, we would not use these going forward, and that if any parents had any concerns about these products, we'd take them back.

It was an incredibly bold move and certainly one that speaks to the integrity and values of our company. Unfortunately, that got misconstrued by the press, and the message became more about the lead issue and not the high-powered magnets. There were about 19 million toys with the magnets out there that we were offering to take back, and there were less than a million units with lead paint, but what got interpreted was "20 million toys!" and "Big Bad Mattel!" We found ourselves in a very serious corporate communications challenge. We quickly went into action and had every corporate crisis case study in our hands. I was crafting how we should be speaking with the consumer and the variety of communications. Advertising was one of them – among other things, we took full-page ads in almost every major newspaper around the world explaining what happened. We positioned it as a letter from the CEO, and we positioned him as a dad with four kids, and his kids are our kids. After all, we're a company made up of families. We'd never produce something that would hurt our kids. We were trying to relate to the world at large as parents – a lot of us are indeed parents. It was quite an experience, and at the end of the day we excelled and got positive feedback.

So did a lot of toys come back?

No, not at all. I think this is a testament to our communications, and frankly, to the knowledge of the consumer that the media has a tendency to create incredible hype around certain issues. The China pet food thing came and went, but this was the first thing that the media could grab onto that involved kids, so we were unfortunately under a lot of scrutiny.

Was this the same across countries?

In Latin America, they weren't at all accustomed to recalls and they didn't understand why this was an issue – and it became more of an issue because we made it an issue. But our perspective was that if we're doing it here, we're doing it everywhere. Now you can argue whether that was right or wrong, but at the end of the day you marry up to the values of the company, and values are not specific to local adaptations, they are global values. We knew that there were going to be cultural issues, but we stuck to our principles, and I think we're better off for it.

You said you have offices in 55 countries and are distributed in over 150, and that your international markets are booming. Is there any country in particular that stands out?

I'd call out Brazil as the most phenomenal, growing by triple digits every year without an end in sight. It used to be the 20th biggest market for us and now, outside of the U.S., it's the biggest.

Why is that?

Their economy has grown overall and thus has their middle class. There's also a strong cultural relationship with our brand. Their culture reveres women, and Barbie is the ultimate girl. They also love Hot Wheels. As much as they revere women, there's a masculinity there as well. And then with Fisher-Price we hit pre-school, and they're having a lot of babies...

Brazil makes me think of the Amazon, which makes me think of the trend these days towards green. Does this impact you at all?

We pride ourselves as marketers who are on top of cultural trends. As marketers, you have to be aware of any cultural trend in the world, and green is obviously a phenomenon that is not going away. I think there's a great risk of kind of 'green washing' and not being authentic. We pride ourselves on being authentic, so we have to admit that we are not necessarily green, but we're doing our best to get there, and we've taken some great small steps to become better global citizens...

For example...?

Well, one of the programs that we've just launched is called Barbie BCause. The sub-line is "BCause it's the right thing to do." We are one of the largest manufacturers of apparel, which most people don't think of. One day, I was in China at a factory with a football field of fabric. I was like, "My god! Look at all this fabric!" The guy giving the tour said that unfortunately this was the fabric that they were discarding. So we've now created a whole line of accessories and home items from this reusable doll fabric. And we're dedicating a percentage of the proceeds to the Mattel Children's Foundation. So to contribute to the green effort without screaming from the rafters "We're green!", we're just doing things that are the right things to do. Barbie B-Cause is the sub-brand we created to carry the umbrella of all the great things that are out there that are the right thing to do - in a commercially friendly way.

So with all your travel, how do you survive?

You get used to it. I have so much interesting stuff going on that you don't get bored and you learn to keep pace. And I drink a lot of coffee! You come to really appreciate long flights because you get a chance to sleep, you get a chance to read. My biggest fear, and I hear it's coming, is cell phone connectivity on the airplanes, because then I'll truly be dead...

And how do you balance everything, including family?

I have two boys, one six and a half and one four and a half. My oldest one is Jonah, and my younger son is Ely. And they are little Californians. I never thought I'd leave New York, let alone have kids that aren't New Yorkers, but now I live in one of the most beautiful places in the world [Pacific Palisades] – it's pretty shocking to me! I feel wholeheartedly that I'm an attentive dad and a good husband and give it my all. I've established a good rhythm at home and a good communication system when I'm abroad. I try to travel on Sunday nights, kick butt to get back by Thursday night, Friday, and the weekends I'll spend 24-7 with my family and won't touch the computer unless everyone is asleep. Ultimately, it's your own comfort level. If I get to the point where something feels uncomfortable, I'll make an adjustment to get that harmony back. I'm incredibly lucky. I take my kids a lot with me. They've been throughout Europe, and they're going to travel with me to Asia this summer. I want them to get that true appreciation for cultural differences that you get and take for granted living in New York City.

On that note, how do you compare New York and Los Angeles?

You know, there's a very cooky rap song**, and it had one line in it that I didn't understand until now. And the line was, "Live in New York once, but leave before you get too hard. Live in California once, but leave before you get too soft." That sums it up. LA is a magical place and you appreciate it for what it is – the weather is truly phenomenal. Every day is sort of like a vacation. The pace is much slower. And aesthetically, it's beautiful. New York's wonderful traits are the culture, the energy, the sophistication, the 24-7 rush – those are all things that I miss. But I'm particularly fortunate because I get to go back and forth all the time.

[**Editor's Note: The song was Baz Lurhmann's "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)," released in 1998. The line is "Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft." The song was based on Mary Schmich's 1997 Chicago Tribune column entitled "Always Wear Sunscreen," which she described as the commencement address she would give if she were asked to give one.]