About Ty Warner
from the Sunday Telegraph 18th July 1999
In a stubby sleek smoked-glass office block in the suburbs of Chicago sits the richest toymaker of all time. Safe within his mirrored womb, he can see the world passing by, but the world cannot see him and this is clearly the way he likes it. His company headquarters, solid as it is, has no address beyond a postal box. Its telephone number is ex directory. The only signs in the grounds outside, discreetly hidden among the manicured corporate flowerbeds, warn trespassers to leave. What exactly does H Ty Warner, inventor of the Beanie Baby, have to hide? Beanie Babies, are after all, are some of the cuddliest, snuggliest, most adorable critters you ever saw. They want to be everybody's friend and they have pretty well succeeded. Worldwide sales of the likes of Pouch the Kangaroo, Spike the Rhinoceros and Claude the Crab reached $250 million last year alone.
Mr Warner, on the other hand, doesn't much want to be anyone's friend and again, he seems to have achieved his ambition. This is a story not so much about dear little soft toys - though Ty Incorporated's palm sized cloth animals, heavy with polystyrene pellets, are certainly that. It is a story about clever marketing - the kind which increased demand by rationing supply and which thereby manages to create a cult product almost before that product is off the production lines.
Warner, you see, has never actually advertised his Beanie Babies and never sold them in major chain stores such as Toys 'R' Us. Instead, ever since the Beanies first appearance in 1994, he has sold his toys only through small gift shops, grateful for all the business he can throw at them. That way he can call all the shots. His real masterstroke though, has been his policy of 'retiring' designs after the initial stock-run has sold out. So older animals become instantly sought-after, while newer creatures are 'must-haves' for collectors, adult and children alike. The rumor of a shipment of Beanies at a particular shop has been known to cause huge overnight queues and near rioting. Two years ago, when McDonald's gave away free 'Teeny Beanies' with their Happy Meals in America, six weeks' supply of toys ran out in three days. Such was the frenzy, many customers just threw away the burgers and fries.
Meanwhile, a massive secondhand Beanie market has sprung up, mostly on the Internet, where Ty maintains a website. Prices for the rarer designs have spiraled. The 'Billionaire Bear', created by Warner as a limited-edition 'thank you' for his workers to commemorate $1-billion sales last year, is now worth more than $2,000.
Beanie Babies, then are everywhere. Not so their creator. There are just two recent photographs of the boss of Ty Incorporated in existence. And he has had almost no contact with the media at all. Three years ago, when his fortunes were just beginning to rise, he gave one interview, to people Magazine. These days, though, talking to Mr Warner is out of the question. His 'press office' turns out to be his long-time secretary, Ann Nickels, a polite-sounding woman in the Moneypenny mould. She has developed a routine for dealing with reporters who unearth her phone number. 'I'm sorry' she says 'Mr Warner is a very private man'.
Indeed he is. Employees of Ty Incorporated have to pledge never to talk about their boss in public. Even some of Warner's closest business associates communicate with him only in writing. A reporter for one toy-industry magazine once wondered, half in jest, if he even exists. But he does. There are only 100 shares in Ty Incorporated, a private company based in Westmont, Illinois and Ty Warner owns them all. That makes him an extremely rich man. How rich? No one really knows, but some estimates say he could be worth $7 billion. Rich enough, anyhow to buy the four seasons Hotel in New York recently with his small change - a mere $275 million.
Warner is often called a recluse, in which case he makes the late Howard Hughes look like Donald Trump. He hides his wealth so well the Forbes magazine admits it failed to spot him for its 1998 list of wealthiest men in America. Other billionaires of the digital age like to flaunt their money, posing with their trophy wives and their Gulf Stream V Jets on the pages of Hello! or People magazine. Mr Warner will not even tell anyone his date of birth.
Small wonder that the occasional glimpses of his personality are as illuminating as a flash of lightening on a dark night. Last Christmas, Ty Incorporated suddenly took a full-page advertisement in the Wall Street Journal to proclaim itself the biggest toy manufacturer in America and therefore the world. Warner's braggadocio was greeted with some skepticism in the industry. Stung and surprised, he duly ordered his accountants to release just enough information to show that it was true. Ty's Beanie Baby empire is now bigger than the conventional toy giants Hasbro and Mattel combined. And that's official.
Warner, then, does stand on his commercial dignity. We might even deduce that he is prey to vanity - or at least to Vanity Fair, which last December cajoled his into having his photograph taken by the venerable Annie Leibovitz. No interview, of course. In a sepia toned portrait, Warner is posed at a draughtsman's desk. He looks a little like the actor Kevin Klein, handsome, boyish and a bit vulnerable. Certainly much younger than his - well, how many years is it?
He will be 55 this autumn. H Ty Warner was born on 3 September 1944, almost certainly in Chicago. His parents were - perhaps - still are - Harold and Elaine Warner. They named him in honor of a Twenties baseball star, the brilliant if thuggish Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers, who famously once beat up a crippled heckler. So much for the Ty bit. The H is an affectation and stands for nothing but gravitas. His mother preferred to call him Tyrone. He has a little sister.
In 1948, like millions of other Americans with the War behind them, looking for fresh air and good schools, the Warner family moved out to the suburbs.
They settled in La Grange, a pleasant and unspoilt Victorian village about half an hour west of Chicago. It has always been thought that Warner's father was a jewelry salesman. In fact, he worked for Jewel Stores, a local supermarket chain. It must have been a senior position, because the family home was a large villa on South 8th Avenue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. They stayed there until 1996 when, according to one neighborhood story, Harold and the point of divorce.
So, ten solid facts and a couple of good leads. In those preceding paragraphs there is more hard information about Warner's past than has been published anywhere before. It may not seem like much, but it has taken two weeks of digging to get this far, with help from school contacts and some patient archival work by the La Grange local history society.
From Kindergarten to the age of 13, Warner went to Cossit School, where he was apparently a supremely average pupil. One contemporary vaguely recalls a boy she describes as 'underneath himself' - a local expression meaning solitary and self-effacing. The organizer of the 25th anniversary reunion has no memory of him at all.
At 14, Ty moved to Lyons High School in Chicago, which also educated the Baywatch star David Hasselhoff. Until contacted for information for this article, no one at the school had any idea that one of its old boys was now one of the wealthiest men in the world. They have one tiny photograph of Warner in the 1959 yearbook, Tabulae. It shows an impassive, slightly geeky youth in a plaid shirt and white jacket.
After just three terms at Lyons, Warner was packed off to St John's Military Academy, a boy's private boarding school in Wisconsin. It is easy to imagine what might have happened the parents, frustrated by watching an obviously bright child becoming lost in a sea of mediocrity, decided to turn to the private sector. If this is the case, the move jolted Warner to life. At St John's he became an active sportsman and a member of the Star and Circles, a club for academic high-fliers. Yet here the trail hits another of those roadblocks which anyone investigating Warner inevitably encounters. The school is clearly a treasure-trove of information. But....'I'm sorry,' says Tom Donaldson, the head of alumni relations. 'But Mr Warner has asked us not to give out any information about his time here.' Clearly knuckles have been rapped - or perhaps a donation pledged.
The school will confirm that Warner went on to Kalamazoo College in Michigan. Mrs Elizabeth Smith is the official archivist at the college. 'All I can say is that he did not graduate from here. Our records are very thin, burt they suggest he stayed here for only a year, if that'.
Why Warner dropped out of college has never been explained. According to Joni Blackman, the only journalist who has ever interviewed him at any length (for People Magazine. in 1996), Warner was studying drama at college and decided to try his luck in Hollywood. It is a familiar story. Warner pumped gas and sold cameras door to door.
Stardom eluded him. Instead, he took a real job, selling soft animals for Dakin, a toy company based in San Francisco. While working the shops of his native Illinois, he seems to have discovered his vocation and undergone something of a personality change. He bought a white Rolls-Royce convertible and would arrive for appointments wearing a fur coat and a top hat and carring a cane. 'It was all to get in to see the buyer,' he told People Magazine. 'I figured if I was eccentric-looking in Indiana, people would think, "What is he selling? Let's look in his case."'
He quit Dakin in 1980, apparently suffering from burn-out. Then, in another of those mysterious periods in his life, Warner moved to Italy, near Sorrento, where he had friends. He stayed there until 1983. 'It's the opposite of what we do here,' he later noted. 'Everyone knows each other. They have a three-hour lunch, swim, lay in the sun. It's a very enjoyable lifestyle.'
In Italy he became particularly taken with a range of cuddly cat toys and wondered why nothing like them existed back home. Fired into action, he returned to America, mortgaged a small flat he owned in Hinsdale, another suburb not fare from where he grew up, and founded Ty Incorporated.
He hired two workers, Miss Nickels and Patricia Roche, who now heads the UK operation. And soon the Himalayan Cats, as he called his first toys, were selling out in local shops. Warner's genius was to leave out some of the stuffing, to make the animals less stiff and more lifelike. Rivals sneered and jokingly called them 'roadkill.' Then he sold 30,000 at the Atlanta toy fair. By 1992 the Ty catalogue had grown to dozens of animals. But Warner was looking for something else, an appealing toy that children could buy with pocket money, something collectable and less than $5.00. Spot the dog, Squealer the pig, Patti the platypus, Cubbie the bear, Choclate the moose, Pinchers the lobster, Splash the killer whale, Legs the frog and Flash the dolphin: the 'original nine', as some collectors now call them, hit the shops of Chicago in 1994. The Beanie Baby was born.
One of the few people to have met Ty Warner and to be willing to talk about him is Becky Phillips, co-author of the best selling, Beanie Mania collectors' guides. She spent 15 minutes alongside Warner at the New York Fair earlier this year. 'He's a very dynamic person.' she says, 'very friendly, especially towards children. He would single them out from a crowd and actually take the trouble to talk to them. 'I would say he's a perfectionist. He is definitely a role model for most of his employees. As for secrecy - I really don't know. I suspect he wants people to find out about him rather than just supply the information himself. It's a sort of game'.
But then Warner's whole marketing strategy is a sort of game. The more his Beanies have taken off, the more he has withdrawn into obscurity. In some quarters he has also acquired a reputation for extreme ruthlessness. His team of lawyers uncompromisingly hunts down any perceived infringements of copyright. One Connecticut toy store called Tybran lost all Beanie Baby deliveries just for refusing to change its name. It was actually named after the owner's children.
Warner has never married and has no children of his own to spend his money on or play with his toys. In his People interview there was a reference to a long-term relationship with Faith McGowan, a local lighting designer with two teenage daughters. It is not a subject he has returned to. Warner keeps a luxury apartment hidden deep in a gated community in Hinsdale, five miles from his corporate headquarters. Mrs McGowan has a house in nearby Oak Brook. In a typical Warner-esque move, even her address is listed only as a PO Box.
Games aside, you have to wonder what Warner is so desperately trying to protect himself against. Surely not his fans. His most avid devotees - who actually call him 'Mr Ty' - are after all not exactly scary stalker types. They seem curiously uninterested in the real man. For them he is more of a cult figure, The Great Beanie Creator, who thrills them simply by 'dropping in' for a chat now and then on the Beanie Babies website.
Not everyone is a believer. There are those who say the Beanie Baby is a craze whose time has almost run. Secondhand prices have slumped by nearly a third in 1999. Today, in many shops, you can find a new 'Princess' Beanie - the bear created in 1997 in memory of the late Princess of Wales, which was once so difficult to obtain in America that British tourists visiting the United States could pay for their holidays by packing three or four in their suitcases - for just the retail price. Does the thought of being a has-Beanie trouble Warner? Probably. One thing, though, is certain. We will never know.
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