Management changes at toy maker Little Tikes Co. have caused rumors to swirl over the past few weeks. Now the official word is out: President Jim Tiffany has taken full-time medical leave, product development Vice President Jerry Wise left to ``pursue other interests,'' and Newell Rubbermaid Inc. Chief Executive Officer Joseph Galli wants brand marketing emphasized. The result? Someone else to fill the shoes of John MacWherter, the former vice president of marketing.
And, no, officials and analysts agree: Newell is not looking to sell Little Tikes.
Effective July 2, the Hudson, Ohio-based division of Newell Rubbermaid got a host of new managers, but the timing of each one is coincidental, said Mike Neff, vice president of operations at Little Tikes.
Still, skeptics have raised their eyebrows.
Little Tikes and Graco reported first-quarter sales of $236.9 million, down from $247.8 million for the same period a year ago. Although Newell is preparing a restructuring plan that calls for 3,000 layoffs and consolidation of manufacturing, Neff said there are no planned layoffs or plant closings at Little Tikes.
``From where we're at right now, we only see a ramp-up for the year forward,'' he said. ``We are at somewhat reduced [staffing] levels right now.''
When asked if Newell had any intentions of selling Little Tikes, Neff said: ``Galli has supported Little Tikes and has intentions of growing it in a huge way.''
In a July 5 telephone interview, analyst Eric Bosshard of Midwest Research said Newell management is not satisfied with Little Tikes' performance.
``You would only make management changes of this magnitude if you're disappointed with the direction,'' Bosshard said. ``Tiffany is a different story, of course; we must note that. But the other two are a bit of a surprise.''
Tiffany, president for two years, was forced to take medical leave because of his battle with cancer, Neff said. Rory Leyden, who most recently was vice president of marketing for Newell's EZ Paintr division, has replaced him.
``Leyden is a veteran consumer-products marketer whose experience will help the company leverage the powerful Little Tikes brand,'' Newell said in a July 2 news release.
As for Little Tikes marketing, Julie Ransom, director of Newell's NASCAR special events program, has stepped into MacWherter's position, Neff said.
``This is a shift toward a much more brand-marketing-oriented approach,'' he said. ``In general, it's the same direction we've been heading, with a much stronger marketing effort.''
Wise also left ``to pursue other interests,'' Neff said, but his departure was unrelated to anything going on in the company. Loretta Harland was appointed vice president of product development, Neff said.
``She brings to the table knowing the business, understanding the business, understanding corporate strategy,'' Neff said of Harland, who has spent 15 years in product development for Little Tikes.
Bosshard said toy companies face a challenging environment.
As for improvement by year's end, he said: ``I don't see much light at the end of the tunnel right now.''
During the past year, Little Tikes had shown signs of turning the corner, he said.
``The expectations were that this was going to be a turnaround year for them,'' Bosshard said. ``The first quarter was a step in the wrong direction.''