McFarlane Toys spawns huge success - East Valley Tribune: Business

McFarlane Toys spawns huge success

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Posted: Sunday, February 13, 2005 6:57 am | Updated: 9:19 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Todd McFarlane’s favorite color: Black.

His favorite number: 13.

No, the 44-year-old East Valley entrepreneur is not a Dracula kind of guy.

He’s a down-to-earth family man who enjoys playing volleyball with his kids and, sometimes, grocery shopping with his wife, Wanda. He’s also a multimillionaire who is primarily a cartoonist, but whose Tempe-based companies are earning record profits, thanks to his ability to find market niches for his favorite topics in life — art first, baseball second.

"My goal is to share art with the world and, by sharing it, I’m making money," said McFarlane, owner and founder of Spawn Comics, McFarlane Toys and several other artoriented firms.

McFarlane, an energetic, 163-pounder who ran — and finished the 26.2-mile Tempe P.F. Chang’s Rock and Roll Marathon — said his primary products, action-figure dolls, are aimed at the male market, starting with the smaller, younger guys and moving up to the middleaged and older sports-oriented men.

"Our newest toys and products will be expanded to include women," said McFarlane, referring to the animated feature film "Corpse Bride," a dark, romantic movie set in 19th century Europe and featuring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter.

McFarlane Toys, headquartered at 8945 S. Harl Ave., Tempe, plans to issue toys as well as jewelry, clothing and other items related to the movie scheduled for release next fall, he said.

McFarlane became interested in comic books as a teenager growing up in his native Calgary, Alberta. But it wasn’t the story lines or the comic book hero’s dramatic actions that attracted him. It was the drawing.

"I collected comic books and hid them in my closet," he recalled. "One day, my girlfriend, who later became my wife, saw them and got this strange expression on her face, like she was thinking maybe I’m weird or something. So right away I told her: ‘Hm-m-m. Those belong to my older brother . . .’ "

At the time, he was 16 and his future wife was 13 and they remember the incident with amusement to this day.

McFarland, his brothers, Derek, 42, Curtis, 45, and a sister, Tiffany, 35, and their parents, Robert, a printer, and Sherlee, traveled throughout Canada and California as his father searched for work.

"I come from a blue-collar family that was very transient," he said. "But, for me, it was good because I got to meet a lot of different people and see the country."

It also taught him the value — and the perspective — of earning money.

"It’s nice to have money, but money was never the end of the game for me," McFarlane said. "I’m not doing this to become rich and famous. And I’m not living in a world to run faster and faster."

Besides art, the other love for the left-handed McFarlane was — and is — baseball.

"Yes, I grew up wanting to become a professional baseball player, but it just didn’t happen," he said, referring to a baseball scholarship to Eastern Washington University where he played ball and majored in graphic arts.

He was eventually recruited by the Seattle Mariners, and he and his college roommate, Al Simmons, played on summer teams, but their baseball careers were relatively brief.

"I broke my ankle, but that wasn’t the reason I stopped playing baseball. I probably wouldn’t have made it in the pros, but I continued to draw," he said.

He later founded Image Comics and introduced his own character, Spawn, a hero based on his college pal, Simmons, who now works for McFarlane at his Tempe office.

"Yes, we go way back," Simmons said. "We still enjoy batting practice together . . . when we have the time."

While McFarlane still enjoys watching professional baseball, he also gets great satisfaction playing T-ball with his son, Jake, 5, and helping his wife coach the volleyball teams of his daughters, Kate, 10, and Cyan, 13.

Meanwhile, McFarlane’s love for the baseball is reflected in scores of actionfigure baseball player toys, mementos at his showroommuseum that opened Oct. 19 next door to his main office on Harl Avenue and his collection of home run balls hit by Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds.

He invested $2.7 million to purchase Mark McGwire’s 70th home run ball, and currently has 11 home run balls that are used as attractions to raise money to fight Lou Gehrig’s disease.

But, like nearly all of his products, baseball action toys are just one of many profitmaking and art-oriented images, including toys made from popular movies such as "Shrek," "Austin Powers," "Jaws," "The X-Files" and entertainers such as KISS and The Beatles.

"I’d like to be remembered as the guy who turned out some quality comics and toys, while doing a few different things even if it wasn’t the easiest road to follow," said McFarlane, who produced and directed an award-winning movie, "Spawn," for New Line Cinema in 1997.

He also won a Grammy for making a music video based on the Pearl Jam song "Do the Evolution" with lead singer, Eddie Vedder.

His toy company in Tempe employs about 200, has an 8,000-square-foot warehouse and is the fifth-largest actionfigure manufacturer in the United States. It has contract agreements to make toys with several major Hollywood film producers as well as sports teams, and some of the limited action figures have become collectors items.

The action toys are made of plastic and are designed and crafted by artists in New Jersey, then assembled and distributed worldwide.

Among the figures are minutely detailed figures of Shaquille O’Neal, Barry Bonds, Elvis Presley, Conan the Barbarian, Spawn and dozens of others, some horror figures, others comical but all based on real or imagined personalities who are relatively and/or extremely popular.

Spawn Comics, which debuted in 1992, sold 1.7 million copies, is still being produced but has been overshadowed by McFarlane’s other products, and by changes in society, McFarlane said.

"Comic books represent a phase which is being replaced by computer games and electronic action figures," McFarlane said. "Where will we be five years from now? I don’t know. But, at some point, we have to make decisions and maybe get into other products. Whatever we decide, it will have something to do with art."

McFarlane Facts

His real-life heroes? "My parents. Everything I’ve learned about life I’ve learned from them. My dad struggled to make ends meet. My mom stayed home and took care of us."

A favorite pastime? "Hiking up South Mountain and looking down and seeing downtown Phoenix."

A recent achievement? "Finishing the remodeling of our house in Ahwatukee. I didn’t grow up in the Southwest, so our house is an un-Southwest house."

Future business plans?

"Expanding to more retail stores."

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