For 37 years, Wayne Stock helped make the dreams of children come true at Tonka Toys, Little Tikes Co. and Step2 Co. - making some of the highest-quality, U.S.-made toys in an era when nearly everything else moved to China.
Stock retired July 1 from Step2 Co., where he was executive vice president and manager of manufacturing operations.
Step2 owner Tom Murdough, who teamed with Stock in rotational molded toys for more than 20 years, called him a ``significant factor'' in rotomolding. ``Wayne has been a great contributor to the company,'' Murdough said.
Stock's last week on the job was filled with honors, as employees and industry officials applauded him during a lunch at the factory in Streetsboro, Ohio, and a banquet at a nice hotel.
A soft-spoken man who turned 70 on Aug. 1, Stock gives the credit to the men and women on the factory floor. Rotomolding is serious factory work, physically demanding, hot and nonstop.
Rotomolding blurs the lines between management and factory worker, Stock said. ``We're no better than them.''
At Step2, operators work 12-hour shifts bolting and unbolting the giant molds. In the summer, the heat can get intense, as the spinning molds move through big ovens. It's one of the hardest jobs in the plastics industry, Stock said, ``Because of the heat. Because of the impact guns. Because you're physically pulling the part out of the mold. And there's no way you can air condition it. But it's fast. Keeps the people going; they don't get bored.''
Stock got to work at about 5 a.m., to touch base with the night shift before the shift change at 6 a.m. Stock normally walked through the Streetsboro plant three or four times a day.
Stock was not one to sit in his office gazing at production spreadsheets on a computer screen. He likes the direct approach. ``It's an easy way, if they had problems, they'd tell me what was wrong with the machine, so we could get it fixed,'' he said in an interview June 27.
It was 95° F in Streetsboro that day. Stock went out on the floor. In the background was the constant hum of machines, the riiiip-riiiip sound of bolting up molds, like a car repair shop.
``We're going to miss him,'' said Kassandra Yauger, working on Step2 kitchen sets. She was in constant motion, flaming parts to remove the parting line, assembling, putting the play kitchens into boxes.
Chris McDaniel, a wiry man with 12 years of perfect attendance, works in the shipping department. ``Wayne is a great guy to work for,'' he said.
McDaniel marveled at Stock's ability to remember the names at the 400-employee toy factory. ``We've got people in and out of here all the time. I don't know how he does it,'' he said.
Stock personally handed out shop-floor paychecks every week. Before vacations, he would go shake hands with everybody. That forced him to remember names.
The Tonka way
Stock learned many of his people skills working at Tonka, maker of the metal dump truck and other toys that have reached icon status. Tonka hired him in 1968, in a manufacturing management job at its headquarters plant in Mound, Minn., near Minneapolis.
Stock said about 1,800 people worked there, doing metal-stamping, painting and building Tonka toys on an assembly line.
Russell Wenkstern, Tonka's chief executive officer, stressed the importance of good employees with skills and, just as important, pride in their work in the greater achievement of making high-quality toys.
``His heart and soul was in Tonka toys,'' Stock said.
Employees felt important. ``As an example, when we had large meetings of the manufacturing and sales all together, quarterly or semi-annually, Russ would get up and he'd walk around to everybody at the meeting and say something about them. It would be 60 or 70 people. Just a couple of words. He came up to me and said, `Don't hear very much from him. He doesn't say much. But he gets the job done,' '' Stock said, chuckling.
Murdough said Stock shares those skills. ``Wayne is unique in what he does because of his understanding and compassion for people. He's a great teacher, mentor and caregiver,'' he said.
Tonka sent Stock to Boston to be director of its Vogue Doll operation, which it purchased. Vogue bought arms, legs and heads from a rotomolder. It was Stock's first exposure to rotomolding - a crude process where workers used pliers to yank doll heads from the mold.
Tonka later moved Stock to California to run a unit making glazes for the ceramics hobby. He moved it to Kentucky; then Tonka transferred him to Mississauga, Ontario, to run the 300-employee Tonka Toy plant.
Meeting of minds
Here's where Murdough entered the picture. In 1970, he founded Little Tikes with a few employees in a barn in Aurora, Ohio. But by the early 1980s, Tikes employed 300-400 at a couple of factories.
Murdough said he visited the Mississauga plant, to discuss a possible licensing deal. But he really had his eyes on Wayne Stock.
``At that time, I was desperately in need of a professional manufacturing guy,'' Murdough said. He told Stock, if he was looking for a change, then call.
Stock did not pursue the offer. But then Tonka announced it was closing the main Minnesota plant. Stock could see the writing on the wall. (Hasbro Inc. ended up buying Tonka in 1991, and Tonka production moved out of the United States).
Stock started working at Tikes in 1983. The following year, Murdough sold the toy company to Rubbermaid Inc. Murdough stayed to run it, but he quit and started Step2 in 1991.
Stock followed. He sees parallels between Murdough and Tonka's Wenkstern. ``He's somebody that I can look up to and respect for what he's done. He's made it possible for us to do the things we have in the factory. He believes in what we're doing,'' Stock said.
Stock has retired to Tampa, Fla., with his wife Sue. They got married a few years ago, ending a life of bachelorhood for Stock. Now they are helping Sue's daughter, Samantha, run a Curves fitness club.
Step2 has promoted Jim Nagy to vice president of manufacturing.
Retirement will be a change of pace from the hectic days of running factories. It's gotten tougher in recent years. Step2 and Little Tikes have both faced serious challenges, from convincing mega-retailers to carry their bulky items to skyrocketing resin prices. Rotomolders also must swallow big price increases for natural gas used to fire their ovens.
On the technology side, Stock said in early rotomolding, the ovens were the limiting factor; they couldn't melt the plastic fast enough. The industry responded with more-powerful ovens. ``But then we couldn't cool it, so that's where we got very involved and went to the second cooling chamber,'' Stock said.
Large exhaust systems remove hot air from the mold. That also makes it more comfortable for the shop workers - but Stock said employee attitudes have changed over the years. Young professionals don't want to pay their dues. ``People in school are taught to sit behind a computer. The college graduates, a lot of them just want to get out and manage. When they come applying for a job, it isn't `Well, I want to learn something so I can manage. It's `I can manage right now.' You've got to start at the ground level and learn what's going on first.''
For production help, Step2 hires workers right out of high school. Stock said they often are skeptical. Rightly so: ``Just look at what you see in the papers, all the businesses going broke, or taking all the money and running. And they've most likely come from blue-collar parents, so they've seen it. Their father may have gotten laid off when he was 55 years old. So you have to first show them that you can be trusted.''
That's just like Stock. Focus on the people angle. Experienced rotomolding employees, he said, are more important than the machine. They can make changes on very humid days, maybe cut down on the cooling to get a good cure. It's old-fashioned factory work. An operator has ownership of the machine.
U.S.-made quality comes out in the Kangaroo Climber, the Push-Around Buggy, the Crabbie Sandbox. What does Stock think about today's made-in-China toys? ``Well, the quality isn't there. They're disposable, where our products last forever. It's because the people care about what they're doing. And the company does too.''