At the Helm: Michael Araten

By Patricia Olsen

A few minutes with the president and CEO of K'NEX Brands.


Size of company: We sell about 7 million or 8 million K'NEX sets a year.

Number of employees: About 200.

Years with the company: Eight.

First job at this company: General counsel. In 2009 I was promoted to president and CEO.

Most memorable thing I learned from my father-in-law: You must have a plan and make it clear to your team. You also have to project confidence. The people running the company are looking to you to believe in what you're doing. Also, if you believe in your idea, keep at it no matter what others think.

Most memorable thing I learned from my mother-in-law: Eat dessert first. Life is uncertain.

Best thing about this job: Knowing that at any time, anywhere, millions of kids are playing with K'NEX. A close second is that I get to create toys from brands I played with as a kid, such as Sesame Street [and] Nintendo Monster Jam. Third, developing a plan and watching it evolve. We're planning for the fourth generation to take over at some point. We want to have options for them when they're old enough.

Worst thing about this job: When I started, I felt I had no ideas but plenty of time. Now I have plenty of ideas and no time.

One of our greatest successes: In January 2012 we convinced Rovio Entertainment, the developer of the Angry Birds app, to give us the global rights to manufacture K'NEX toys based on their characters. We had the products on the shelves that June, which is rare. Also, President Obama visited us in 2012 after we publicized our efforts to bring work back from China.

Best advice I ever got: Do what you say you're going to do when you say you're going to do it.

Quote from our company's mission statement: Building Worlds Kids Love.

Best thing about working in a family business: You have a basic trust going in. Because you're with family, they have your back and there's no hidden agenda. That gives you more flexibility than you might otherwise have.

Worst thing about working in a family business: Finding the time to separate business and home life. Because you see each other so much, there's a tendency to always talk about business.

My advice for other family business leaders: To realize that family businesses are mostly similar to other businesses in that if you focus on what's good for business, the family stuff tends to solve itself. If it becomes more about merit and the logical choice for the business, then you're able to deal with the emotional issues that crop up.

Philanthropic causes our family supports: I'm president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation. K'NEX also supports kid-related causes, and we give away about 20,000 toys a year.

I realized I had emerged from the previous generation's shadow when ... People stopped asking me where Joel was.

Succession plans: My children are still young, but it's something we're always thinking about. Currently we don't have backups for everyone, but we have them for the core positions in senior management.



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March/April 2014


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