Horst Brandstätter bet everything on plastic: In the 1950s, the Bavarian entrepreneur had anticipated that plastic, not metal would be the future of children’s toys. While his instincts proved him right, the oil crisis of the 1970s hit his company, the Brandstätter Group, hard.
Out of sheer necessity, he came up with small plastic figures with somewhat moveable arms and legs, using only a minimum of oil-based material.
In 1974, when wooden train sets and teddy bears still dominated German playtime, the inventor still had a hard time at toy trade fairs convincing distributors of his product’s potential. But children quickly took to the plastic pirates, knights and princesses, and the boats and castles they came with.
Under the brand name Playmobil, the little 7.5-centimeter (3-inch) plastic figurines became a huge hit around the world. A total of 2.7 billion of the toys have left the factories since.
While Germany, with almost 30 percent, is the company’s single biggest market, other European countries like France, Spain, the United Kingdom also buy lots of Playmobil. Many of the iconic blue boxes also go to the United States.
In fact, the firm’s most prominent fan might sit in Silicon Valley: Jonathan Ive, chief designer at Apple, reportedly has a specially made Playmobil figurine of himself sitting on his desk, and keeps a picture of it as the lock screen on his phone.
“When the captain is the only one who knows where the compass is, and he falls overboard – then the ship is doomed.”
Last year, the Brandstätter Group had sales of €595 million ($667 million), about 90 percent of which was generated by Playmobil. That means a slight slip compared to 2013, when sales amounted to €612 million, the first drop after several continuous years of sales growth. Still, that makes the company Germany’s second-largest toy manufacturer by sales.
Now the company, which has tried to incorporate the growing importance of online and video games by offering little movies and comics featuring its figures on the Internet, is facing a far greater challenge. The father of the little plastic figures, Mr. Brandstätter, died last week at the age of 81.
Mr. Brandstätter, who people described as being headstrong but amiable, was a typical proponent of Germany’s much-hailed Mittelstand, the league of small and mid-sized firms that make up the country’s economic backbone.
He maintained a strong connection to Zirndorf, the small town close to Nuremberg in Bavaria where the company headquarters have been located since the 1950s. And inside the firm he was mostly called “Hob,” short for Horst Brandstätter, by his employees, many of whom he knew personally.
While competitors moved production to low-wage countries in Asia, he made it a point to keep manufacturing in Europe, mostly in Malta and Germany, including at Germany’s largest toy factory in Dietenhofen, Bavaria.
And as an entrepreneur who’s strongly shaped the company’s product, image and success, he was still involved in day-to-day business until very recently.
In one way, however, Mr. Brandstätter differed from many other Mittelstand firms: He early on settled the question of succession. Instead of passing the company on to his two sons, he set up a foundation years ago. His offspring, he feared, “would change much that I have established in management with lots of effort,” as he once said in an interview.
The foundation is now to run the firm following his principles, like keeping production in Europe, for example. That will in all likelihood secure the jobs of the almost 4,200 employees worldwide, about 2,400 of them in Germany.
The company is therefore likely to master the change without major hickups. “Playmobil as a brand is established enough to stay successful; it is a classic just like the train set,” said Ulrich Brobeil, head of the German toy industry association DVSI. “More importantly, there are clear rules for succession with the foundation and the external management,” he added.
Over the past years, Mr. Brandstätter had already taken to sharing management of the firm, even though he was still the sole owner. “I have known the external managers involved, and I am convinced that they are able to successfully lead the company in Mr. Brandstätter’s spirit,” said industry expert Mr. Brobeil.
As a passionate golfer, Mr. Brandstätter had for the past two decades spent his winters in Florida, trusting that the Brandstätter Group would function without his physical presence, as he said: “When the captain is the only one who knows where the compass is, and he falls overboard – then the ship is doomed. If I am not there, my employees will have to reach their own decisions.”
Franziska Roscher is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. To contact the author: email@example.com.