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Q&A with Alan Hassenfeld, Hasbro Executive Committee Chair and Former CEO

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Alan Hassenfeld is Hasbro’s past CEO, current Executive Committee Chair and an indomitable champion of worthy causes around the world. Like his father, he believes in living charity; doing good things and making the world a better place. He’s touched millions of lives, including mine. Not only is Alan a visionary far beyond our industry, he’s willing to give advice and help if asked (and I ask often!). I’ll never forget his reaching out to me when my mom battled cancer, even offering to recommend and refer specialists. He leaves an indelible mark on the hearts of all who know him and it has been an honor to interview him.

How did your family first enter the toy industry?

That story begins more than a century ago in Eastern Europe, where in the spring of 1903 anti-Semitic mobs slaughtered dozens of Jews, including children, and burned and pillaged more than 1,000 Jewish stores and home in the city of Kishinev. When word of this pogrom reached the Hassenfeld family, who lived in a small village in what is now Poland, they feared for their lives.

So Osias Hassenfeld and his wife, Chaya Reich Hassenfeld, decided to arrange for two of their sons – Hillel, 17, and Henry, 14 – to make it to the safety of America. To support themselves, they began to peddle textile remnants that they purchased from Manhattan’s thriving Garment District. Yes, they sold rags, setting the stage for what literally would become a rags-to-riches story and a long history of family and corporate philanthropy.

Soon enough, the teenage brothers in that long-ago time learned that many of the textiles used to make clothes were manufactured in Rhode Island. Cutting out the middleman, as it were, they began to buy their remnants directly from the textile factories up here. Eventually, they moved to Rhode Island, where they had a bright idea: why not take the best textile remnants and use them to line wooden pencil cases? Pencil cases were popular with schoolchildren in the early 1900s, and were usually sold with pencils, sharpeners, and other items. A deluxe, plush-lined version, the Hassenfeld brothers imagined, might be winners.

They were. Henry and Hillel, who meanwhile had helped bring their family and others to the U.S., began to prosper. Their business grew, and from their original Providence headquarters, they moved to Central Falls, a manufacturing city next to Pawtucket. Enterprising and creative, Hillel and Henry — joined now by brother Herman and other family members – began offering paints, crayons and modeling clay in their boxes.

And, not long before the Second World War, they filled them with play pill bottles, stethoscopes, microscopes, needles, medical charts and dental mirrors. These Junior Doctor and Junior Nurse kits were Hasbro’s first true toys, and they were enormously popular. Hasbro continued to grow.

Who has been involved and who is involved now?

Well, we’ve just discussed the founders of Hasbro. The next generation included my father, Merrill, Henry’s son, who joined the company in 1938 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania – my alma mater, I would note. After the start of World War II, when the threat of German submarines and even planes attacking the East Coast gave rise to an adult corps of so-called Air Raid Wardens, Dad was instrumental in introducing junior air-raid warden kits. These included kid-size arm bands, whistles, flashlights and warden’s caps, which were solid inside, yes, Hasbro boxes. The old formula still worked.

But it was a new product that really began to launch Hasbro to what would become the $5-billion toy and entertainment firm it is today. Brought to my Dad by an outside inventor, George Lerner, Mr. Potato Head was introduced in 1952 and was an immediate coast-to-coast sensation. Having been freshened and “reinvented” virtually every year since, it remains on the market today and if you visit Hasbro headquarters in Pawtucket, you will see a human-size Pot Head, as I jokingly call the time-honored toy, outside the executive suite. The toy has been all-plastic for decades, but many people don’t know that the original Mr. Potato Head was sold only as parts – arms, legs, nose, etc. Kids had to stick them into actual potatoes or other vegetables, the “body,” which led to some messy situations. It’s worth noting that Mr. Potato Head was the first toy from any company ever advertised on TV. You can still find that black-and-white commercial on YouTube, if you look.

Dad was running the company when in 1964 we introduced G.I. Joe, whose wild success surpassed anything that had come before – and that’s saying a lot, given the many toys Hasbro introduced and the ties we made to Hollywood in the 1950s and early ‘60s. On through the decade we went and into the 1970s, growing and broadening the lines. When Dad sadly died of a heart attack in 1979, my brother, Stephen, took command.

You could say that almost from birth, Stevie had wanted to be part of the business. As a young boy, he couldn’t wait for weekends so he could visit the factories with Dad. Me? Didn’t interest me as much, although when Stevie offered me a summer job when I was in college, I took it. And so began my involvement. But from 1979 to 1989, when he, too, died, Stevie was boss and he took Hasbro from a large and thriving toy company into a Fortune 500 firm, the first toy company to ever hot that list. He was a true business genius, and one of his great achievements was buying Milton Bradley, which brought a treasure trove of game brands into the Hasbro family. A lot of that story and my brother’s tragic demise is told in the best-selling “Toy Wars: The Epic Struggle Between G.I. Joe, Barbie and the Companies That Make Them,” the prequel to the recently published “Kid Number One: A Story of Heart, Soul and Business, featuring Alan Hassenfeld.”

Both books also tell the story of me becoming chairman and CEO after Stevie died. On my watch, we kept growing, with development of in-house brands and acquisitions, notably Kenner/Tonka. Which brought us Star Wars.  Eventually, I left the corner office to devote all of my time and energy to philanthropy – to the common good, to helping others, which has been a Hasbro and Hassenfeld passion since the days of my grandfather and great-uncle, who, grateful to have survived, were deeply involved in many religious and secular causes.

Do you think the next generation will get involved?

Although I do not have a role in the day-to-day operations of Hasbro, I do chair the Executive Committee. As for the next generation, that title really belongs to two people who while not Hassenfelds, are certainly family.

The first is Al Verrecchia, who became chairman and CEO when I retired. Al had been employed at the company longer than I had and he was a central figure in the early and later growth and expansion. When Al retired, the reins passed to current CEO and chairman, Brian Goldner, who has taken the company to new heights. We knew long before Al retired that Brian would one day lead Hasbro, and he has proved to be the right choice.

How has business changed over the years?

Boy, I could fill a book with this answer! The short version? It is now a family entertainment business, with products and properties spread out over television, movies, theme parks and more. It is a business with a significant online and digital presences. The old-fashioned toy per se has not gone away, but it is now just one smaller piece of a much larger whole.

Consider some of our biggest brands: Nerf, Monopoly, Transformers, Play-Doh, My Pretty Pony, and Magic: The Gathering. All of these – and many more of our brands – can be experienced with actual physical products, but also in all of these other iterations.

 

This article appeared in the February 2020 issue of Toys and Family Entertainment (TFE) Magazine.