Maine Lumber Company Switches To Toys
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
With new home construction in the U.S. at its slowest pace in more than 25 years, what's a rural sawmill to do? The answer for Robbins Lumber, a family- run operation in Maine, is to diversify.
Keith Shortall of Maine Public Broadcasting says the company is hoping to tap into consumer anxiety over the safety of products from China.
KEITH SHORTALL: Robbins Lumber in Searsmont, Maine, has been turning tall, white pine trees into lumber for five generation.
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SHORTALL: About 90 percent of the high-grade long boards are destined for the housing market. But with new home construction hitting the skids, Robbins Lumber President Jim Robbins Sr. has had to cut back production and lay off 18 people this year.
NORRIS: I live right here, so these people are my friends and my neighbors. You know, I go hunting and fishing with these people and play sports with them, and I want to keep them employed. Now, when you go laying your neighbors off, that really hurts. I don't like seeing that.
SHORTALL: Robbins Lumber has also lost some of its market share for its manufactured goods; wooden ice cream buckets and folding laundry racks are made more cheaply in China. So Robbins has decided to exploit one of China's weak spots.
NORRIS: Well, when the scare came along a couple of years ago about the lead-coated toys from overseas, you know, I have seven grandchildren, and I don't want my grandchildren playing with toys coated with lead paint. And so, I got thinking about it, and I said, well, gee, I've got this really nice woodworking shop, employing all these people, making all these other things. Why don't we try going into the toy business?
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SHORTALL: For its new line, the company hired a design firm and developed some basic wooden pull toys and its signature product: a wooden platter with a dial mounted in the center.
NORRIS: This is one of our real popular games. It's called the Original Ultimate Spinner, and it's 12 games in one.
SHORTALL: The game can teach spelling, math and telling time, or encourage more physical and creative activity.
NORRIS: This game here, which is Goofy Dress-Up, the kids see who can get dressed up in their parents' clothes first. And you turn it over, and you've got Spin Do, and this is an interactive game, like pretend you're riding a bike in different ways, pretend to be a chicken laying an egg at the farm. Fun things for kids to do, you know?
SHORTALL: The Original Ultimate Spinner won a coveted Dr. Toy Award for 2008, but the real test is taking place at the annual International Toy Fair in New York City.
NORRIS: This works real well with family, especially when you're into the Spin Do, when you have to...
SHORTALL: From her booth in the fair's game-board section, Robbins Toy sales manager Dawn Manton is making her pitch for the Original Ultimate Spinner to Carolyn Topp, head merchant for online retailer UncommonGoods.
NORRIS: We're finding a lot of our customers are predisposed in asking us for products that are made completely in the United States these days. So, it's very exciting to see something that - this imaginative, interactive and creative, which are the type of games and toys that we like to carry in our assortment.
SHORTALL: Robbins Toy got an order from UncommonGoods. And as the Toy Fair wrapped up in New York today, the company had other orders to celebrate, as well. President Jim Robbins says if the toy venture takes off, he'll be able to replace some of the jobs he's had to cut. If it doesn't work, he could be forced to reduce his manufacturing staff by nearly two-thirds.
For NPR News, I'm Keith Shortall.
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