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Millikin University - Decatur, IL
Millikin University > Alumni & Friends > Stay Connected > Millikin Quarterly > Posts > Just funnin' - These alumni toy execs aren't just playing around

Tom Neville '86

It looked like a normal office building from the outside, tucked as it was in a neatly manicured commercial park in Irvine, Calif. The sunny parking lot was quiet, as was the climb to the building’s second floor. But there were also hints of fun: wall-sized photos of grinning children clothed in primary colors adorned the walls of the reception area. A scattering of small toys covered the reception desk.

A delivery person and I waited in the office area when J. Robert “Bob” Lienhop ’76 burst through the door, greeting us both at once. After signing for the delivery, Lienhop ushered me through the door and into a cacophony of visual delight. It was the headquarters of Strottman International, the company Bob serves as president of global operations, and Strottman’s business is making toys – lots and lots of toys.

Lienhop would more accurately claim that the company’s business is to help clients appeal and connect to kids and families by specializing in premium products (i.e. giveaways) and retail experiences. As he explained that day, one reason toys were everywhere was that the growing company had 0verrun its office space and was prepping for a move. The space we toured first was the domain of the “creatives,” as he termed the employees who develop premium campaigns and runs of children’s meal toys for clients including Wendy’s, Taco Bell and Chickfil-A. Strottman International produces all of the children’s meal toys for Wendy’s and Taco Bell restaurants the world over. It makes the majority of Chick-fil-A’s children’s meal toys, as well.

Evidence of creativity was indeed everywhere: clusters of toys marched across shelves, whiteboards mapped ideas in concept balloons and colorful illustrations for upcoming campaigns were tacked to walls and horizontal spaces. Technological opposites for producing toy prototypes were shown in sequence: an old-fashioned drawing and construction table (with wood, nails, paper) shared space with a “printer” that molds and pops out 3-D plastic prototypes of toys for manipulation and testing. Later that afternoon, Lienhop and I discussed other aspects of the company, including Strottman’s manufacturing plants in the Far East as well as the legal, distribution and all-important product licensing aspects of the business.

One thing’s for sure: A lot of work and brainpower goes into the fun today’s kids are having.


Tom Neville '86

Tom Neville ’86, managing director of TCG (formerly The Canadian Group), knows this quite well. Neville, who works and lives in Houston, relies on play for his life’s work, just like Lienhop.

TCG, headquartered in Toronto, Ontario, is a manufacturer and distributor of puzzles, games and skill activities for children and families. Branded as “TCG — The Best in Fun,” the company has been described as the fastest-growing puzzle company worldwide.

As with Strottman’s premiums, licenses are key to TCG product sales. TCG’s licenses include Fisher-Price toys (“the most trusted name in the toy business,” Neville says); television series, including “Glee,” “The Mentalist” and “Doodlebops”; teen singing sensation Justin Bieber; Bratz dolls; Zhu Zhu Pets toys; and BBC Planet Earth.

Neville, a Millikin graduate in finance with a minor in psychology, has been behind much of the company’s growth in licensing and worldwide product distribution. Hired by The Canadian Group just over nine years ago, he manages and oversees the company’s marketing, product positioning and strategic licensing partnerships. With a background in sales for companies including Armstrong World Industries and Lego Toys, Neville also finds himself in the perfect position to manage the sales relationship with TCG’s largest customers. It’s an ever-evolving role, with future success to be buoyed by launching new “crazes,” securing entertainment licensing tie-ins and judiciously incorporating technology to augment the child’s experience with traditional puzzles and games. For example, a QR code on a puzzle of a popular teen entertainer, when scanned by a smartphone, might unlock a short “performance” on the smartphone screen. The puzzle itself is fun, but the technology unlocks a new experience that makes the puzzle fun in a different way.

For better or for worse, Neville and Lienhop agree, entertainment and the advertising media are here to stay in the world of play. The magic comes when a license agreement leads the child or family to choose a certain puzzle or a particular dining experience. The actual play experience with these companies’ products — toys, puzzles, games and premium items — is largely traditional, manipulative, imaginative and interactive. According to Neville, there is an incredibly strong market for traditional toys, from puzzles to board games to yo-yos. Some of the products, like puzzles and board games, have a place in the customer’s life throughout adulthood.

Neville points out that the media also influences the timeline of toy “crazes,”and a typical toy craze saturates the market for 18 months before winding down. Therefore, the successful company always looks ahead to ramp up the next big thing.

Fast timelines are mirrored at Strottman International with its children’s meal toys; a single promotion lasts just four to eight weeks. One successful Strottman product promotes a slower tempo of family interactivity, though: The company produces “Build and Grow” kits for the Lowe’s Home Improvement Store “Build and Grow” Kids’ Clinics worldwide. Offered every other Saturday at all Lowe’s retail locations, the clinics allow kids to build a simple wooden toy by hand. Parents and guardians participate, too. Many of the toys feature a bit of technology (such as sound chips or pullback motors) that enhances their play value. The provision of a toy “series” and, sometimes, licensed toy kits, keeps kids and families coming back for this free activity.

The question inevitably arises: while at Millikin, did you envision that you would be working in the world of play? And: did Millikin prepare you well for what you do today? The resounding response from both Bob Lienhop and Tom Neville: “Absolutely not!” to the first question, and “Absolutely yes!” to the second.

Lienhop prepped in college for a “life of numbers and audits.” Drawn from his home in St. Louis to Millikin by its swimming program, Lienhop majored in accounting at MU. Initially hired by Price Waterhouse as an auditor, Lienhop soon sought a new job, one that would both expose him to international business and allow him to live in California. The internal audit department of Mattel Toys delivered on both counts, and Lienhop soon found himself traveling to Paris, Frankfurt and Milan for Mattel, living in Europe for months at a time. After serving as finance director of the short-lived Mattel Electronics division, manufacturer of Atari competitor Intellivision, Lienhop joined Strottman, a marketing company founded by a former Mattel colleague 28 years ago.

Over the past six years, Strottman’s traditional marketing project work has been replaced with a new vision and direction. Seizing on the opportunity to manufacture children’s meal toys, a niche many major toy companies don’t care to pursue, Strottman has capitalized on its principals’ background in the toy industry and on their expertise in acquiring licenses and designing/executing brand partnerships.

Lienhop credits the financial background he received at Millikin for success in his role overseeing Strottman’s business structures and processes. His former swim coach, Carl Johansen, and David Marshall, professor emeritus of accounting, have been particularly influential. Johansen is credited as having been the one to “motivate this flaky swimmer from St. Louis” to believe that he could succeed in swimming, in the classroom and in life. Lienhop sees Marshall as “a great instructor” with a gift for pragmatically explaining lessons in terms students could understand, relating them to everyday business.

Today, Lienhop lives in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., with his wife of 26 years, Debby. They have two grown daughters, Megan and Janna.

Tom Neville came to Millikin from his home in Colorado in large part due to the urging of uncle Mark Neville ’72, who then served MU as director of development (and eventually as vice president for advancement into the early 1990s). Neville graduated in the midst of the 1980s bull market and counted on making his mark as a stockbroker before switching gears to sales.

At Millikin, Neville says he met “a lot of quality individuals — professors, staff and students — and received a well-rounded education with real-world experiences.” It was “...like being part of a family that is the Millikin community,” he adds. Professors lectured from their experiences in real business with real clients, clubs and activities taught leadership, internships were a place to apply knowledge and the occasional evening class exposed Neville to the perspectives of working commuter students. “It was just a great experience, being exposed to many different areas at once,” he concludes.

Neville lives in Houston with his wife, Sue, a consultant in the energy industry, and with daughters Lindsey, 16, and Erin, 14. His sister, Melissa Neville Rose of Littleton, Colo., graduated from Millikin in 1988.

Both Lienhop and Neville sent a full-to-bursting box of products to the alumni and development office this spring as a tangible demonstration of what their companies do (and a few of those toys also served as nifty illustrations for this article). The toys will be donated to a local charity in honor of these two alums who invest their hard work and brain power into helping today’s children have fun.

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Millikin University - Decatur, IL
Millikin University - Decatur, IL
 
Millikin University - Decatur, IL
Millikin University - Decatur, IL
Millikin University - Decatur, IL
Millikin University - Decatur, IL