Tom Murdough, who made northeast Ohio a major center of U.S.-made toys by founding Little Tikes Co. and Step2 Co. LLC, is back in the rotational molding game — starting a new company called Simplay3.
Murdough said Simplay3 plans to start shipping products this fall, from a 70,000-square-foot factory in Streetsboro — not far from Step2. Simplay3's line will include toys, home and garden items and products for other markets, he said.
Murdough, 77, retired in 2007, the year after a private equity buyer bought Step2. He said he enjoyed spending more time with his family and activities like golf and tennis — all of which will continue.
But he missed creating new businesses.
“I'm not happy being retired or semi-retired,” Murdough said. “I really enjoy the challenge of building a new line of products with a new group of people, and breaking new ground.”
Murdough said he will play an active role in Simplay3. Key managers are also shareholders in the company, he said.
Simplay3 has about a dozen employees now, and Murdough thinks the company will employ 50 in the future. The plastics industry veteran said plant-floor employees are critical for rotational molding, which can be physically demanding work.
“We love our people, and we've always put a high premium on having a close relationship with our employees. And we'll be doing that again,” he said. “Building a team again, that's one of the things that attracted me to get back into the business.”
In an Aug. 11 telephone interview, Murdough said the factory already has two rotomolding machines. A third is coming. He declined to provide details about the equipment, but said Simplay3 will use new technology.
“We're pioneering new methods of manufacturing. We pioneered the rotational molding process starting in 1970, when we started Little Tikes,” he said.
Hudson, Ohio-based Little Tikes grew to become a major toy manufacturer. Murdough sold Little Tikes to Rubbermaid Inc. in 1984, and remained as its top executive until 1989. He started Step2 in 1991, first making trash containers and later, when his noncompete agreement expired with Rubbermaid, adding a line of toys.
Murdough said he did not face noncompete issues when starting Simplay3.
Murdough said he looked for a building in area of Hudson, Aurora and Twinsburg. “We could not find a building in the market that we wanted to be in for really a year and a half to two years,” he said.
He called locating the right building for the new rotomolding company “one of the big delays in getting this project off the ground, and it took us awhile.”
His team had looked at the Streetsboro building before, but then the owners decided to sell it. Murdough said Simplay3 co-owns the building. “This is very much right for us,” he said.
Murdough has been a critic of mass retail for squeezing suppliers. But he said Simplay3 is not going to sell to big-box stores.
“That's one of the reasons I'm back in this thing. We'll be taking a new approach to how we reach the consumer and market to them,” he said.
The market for rotomolded toys and garden equipment is crowded — especially from nearby companies spawned by Murdough. To differentiate Simplay3, the company has assembled a team of designers, including Jim Mariol, who designed the iconic Cozy Coupe for Little Tikes. Murdough said he coaxed Mariol out of retirement to get involved with Simplay3.
“The designers have worked with me before, and they have a very key interest in developing products that are unique and different, and hopefully better than anything currently on the market,” he said.
Little Tikes and Step2 employ more than 1,000 people — making Northeast Ohio a center of U.S.-made toys, in an industry dominated by toys from China.
Jim Nagy, who worked with Murdough's companies — starting as a design engineer and ending as vice president of manufacturing — said the spinoff economic impact is greater than just the jobs at Little Tikes and Step2.
“He gave me a great opportunity. I'm indebted to him,” Nagy said. “He's the one person that has given so much economic opportunity in terms of the rotomolding industry. And the people that came out of Little Tikes, they became owners of companies. And they got their start at Little Tikes, [their] experience up there. He gave them the opportunity to get general knowledge skills.”
Nagy is chief operating officer of rotomolder Premier O.E.M. in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.
Jack Hill knew Murdough back in the early days. Hill in 1967 started Rotadyne Inc., a rotomolding company that got into toys. Murdough, who had worked at Wonder Products Co., a rotomolder of rocking horses, joined Hill at Rotadyne. He bought the company in 1970 and built it into Little Tikes.
“Tom Murdough is a classic entrepreneur — aggressive, market oriented, and with vision,” said Hill, who now is a plastics consultant in Milwaukee.