September 17, 2012

Acclaimed toy inventor gives Fisher students business advice

Reuben Klamer '44 poses with students

While Reuben Klamer is most widely known for inventing The Game of Life in 1960, years before, he was celebrated as a game changer in the toy industry.

In the 1950s, he recognized that the flimsy styrene used to produce most plastic toys posed a safety risk to children. An executive at the Eldon Plastics Co., Klamer pioneered the use of unbreakable polyethylene, which became the new industry standard for plastic toys.

Klamer, a 1944 graduate of the college, was on campus to receive the Dean’s Distinguished Fisher Fellow Award.  Along with The Game of Life, he was the inventor of Fisher-Price's training roller skates, Gaylord the Walking Pup and Busy Blocks. He also had a successful career co-marketing toys in partnership with Hollywood filmmakers and television series producers.

While on campus, Klamer, who lives in San Diego, spoke to honors and scholar students and in Michael Camp’s entrepreneurship class.  Klamer said the industry’s conversion to unbreakable plastics, which began with Eldon’s line of toys, is one of his proudest career achievements. 

“It was known as the Big Poly,” said Klamer, recalling the toys produced by Eldon utilizing polyethylene. “And it came from identifying a need and merging two ideas together.”

Klamer said while shopping in a department store, he had overheard a mother reject her child’s request for a plastic toy airplane. “The mother said to the kid, ‘that’s a cheap plastic toy it will break all apart,’” he said. Days later, Klamer saw a television commercial for a cleaning product in which the bottle was thrown to the floor by the announcer. “The bottle didn’t break. I knew I needed to find out what that bottle was made out of it,” he said.

Klamer, the 2011 Alumni Award winner for Entrepreneurship, used the story of the unbreakable Big Poly toys to illustrate the entrepreneurial process to students in Camp’s course, “the Accelerator: Planning the Entrepreneurial Venture.” 

Identifying a need is one of the best business strategies that can help entrepreneurs gain an advantage, Klamer told the students. “You need to find an industry with a need and create new products to meet that need.”

“You must have an open mind,” Klamer said. “You have to open yourselves up and be aware and allow ideas to come to you.”
He also offered a cautionary story to the students about a failed business venture to show what can happen to an entrepreneur trying to capitalize on a fad. When the original 1960s Batman television show debuted, the show’s creators and producers offered Klamer the opportunity to license and develop toys and other merchandise.

“I went to New York, set up an office in the Plaza Hotel. I hired a secretary and had a direct phone line installed in the suite. Then, I waited for the phone to ring (from toy manufacturers),” Klamer said. “I didn’t get one, single call. That fad came and ended so quickly.”

One entrepreneurship student asked Klamer what toy or game he wished he had invented. Klamer said with a wink, “Monopoly.”