Murdough started out selling golf balls for Wilson Sporting Goods in 1965. Thus began his education on consumer products — and the impact of mass retail. One day he walked into a good customer in North Carolina in 1968, who said, “Tom, I see where Kmart is selling K-28 golf balls for less money than I can buy them from you.” It was an “aha!” moment.
“When you think about it, that's when things really started to deteriorate on the standpoint of the retail industry. And boy, we can see the length that has gone to today,” he said.”
Murdough recounted his entire career in rotational molding in a keynote speech March 29 at the Executive Forum.
Wilson had purchased Wonder Products Co., which made spring-mounted rocking horses. Wonder had one rotomolding machine and two large injection molding presses. Murdough transferred there, to its Tennessee plant. Jimmy Ling, the pioneer of the American conglomerate, bought Wilson, and Lind decreed that all Wilson plants would run year-round.
“At Wonder, they would shut down in November and not start up again until April. The whole toy industry sort of followed patterns like that because they didn't perceive that there was business to be had, other than the Christmas trade.”
Wonder Products' president asked Murdough to help sell time on the machines. He got custom jobs for the injection presses from Holiday Inn and some institutional seating companies.
Then a friend called, a supplier of hospital products, and said his molder of bed pans went bankrupt. Could Wonder Products rotomold 100,000 bed pans?
Kelch Corp. made 24 molds. “I learned more about rotational molding in about a six-month period than I've learned since. It was a very valuable experience,” he said.
“That experience gave me a good understanding of the differences between injection molding and rotational molding,” Murdough said. “What I loved about rotational molding was the speed of entry, the lower cost of building molds, buying machines, and all of that was very appealing to somebody who didn't have any money, to speak of.”
At the Toy Fair in New York, Murdough met Jack Hill, who had just started a rotomolding company in a barn in Aurora, Ohio, called Rotadyne Inc. Murdough joined to build a line of children's products. He also moved the bed pan molding to the Ohio plant.
In 1970, Hill sold his share of the company to Murdough, who built it into the powerhouse Little Tikes. The company moved into a leased plant in Solon, Ohio. Then an infamous visitor stopped by.
“We hadn't been there a week, when one of my assistants said, ‘Mr. Murdough, there's somebody in the parking lot that would like to speak to you.' I said, ‘Why don't they come in?' ‘I think they want to see you in the parking lot.' So I went out to see who it was, and there's this big guy and two henchmen with him. And they're there to tell me that would like to talk to me about organizing. ... I said ‘Are you kidding me? I've got 15 employees in here and you want to get us organized?'
“I was not happy about it all. I expressed myself pretty thoroughly. It didn't make any difference to me who they were. But it turned out to be Danny Greene.”
Greene, an Irish American mobster, was a player in Cleveland's organized crime wars in the 1970s, marked by dozens of car bombings. Greene himself was killed in a car bomb in 1977.
Murdough immediately called a meeting with employees. “I said, ‘This is gonna be the first plant meeting, and we're gonna have one every month. And we're gonna talk about what our objectives are, where we're trying to go, and how we're going to try and do it,'” he said.
“Those plant meetings — and I just had one at Simplay3 — have been so very important to us, in communicating with our people, getting them on the same wavelength,” Murdough said.
Also in 1970, Little Tikes got a nice order from Children's Bargain Town in Chicago. Then a truck strike hit. Murdough telephoned to ask for an extension. They were “tough dudes,” he said.
“He said, ‘If you can't ship that order, you can rip it up!' I said, ‘Yes sir, I'll get it there.' So I rented a truck, drove to Chicago and delivered the products to seven stores,” he said. “That was a big day. I didn't realize how big a day until about a week later and he called up and said, ‘Murdough, that shit's selling!'”
In 1972, the rotomolder moved to Macedonia, Ohio, and the following year, opened a plant in California.