Elliot Handler, creator of the Hot Wheels® mega-brand, changed the world of toys forever when he founded Mattel, Inc., today a worldwide leader in the design, manufacture and marketing of toys and family products. With his wife Ruth Handler, Elliot transformed what began as a home-based business into the largest toy company in the world, with a rich portfolio of brands known to generations of children around the world, including Hot Wheels®, Barbie®, Fisher-Price®, and American Girl®.
The Handlers started Mattel Creations in 1945 with Harold “Matt” Matson, whose name was fused with Elliot’s to form “Mattel.” Originally a small business enterprise headquartered in the Handlers’ garage in suburban Los Angeles, Calif., the company launched with three pieces of shop equipment purchased on installment from Sears. The first Mattel products produced from that location were picture frames, and Elliot soon developed a side business in dollhouse furniture made from picture frame scraps.
Elliot’s product development talents were complemented by Ruth’s marketing savvy, and the company turned a profit in its very first year. The Uke-A-Doodle®, a child-size ukelele, was the first in a line of musical toys that gave Mattel its first ‘staple’ business. After the Uke-A-Doodle introduction in 1947, Matson sold his share of the business. Encouraged by their success, the Handlers soon shifted the company’s emphasis to toys. A popular jack-in-the-box followed the Uke-A-Doodle, and by 1955, the company was valued at $500,000 and well on its way to becoming the world’s number-one selling toy brand.
In 1955, a new television series produced by The Walt Disney Company called the “Mickey Mouse Club” was set to debut, and Disney and ABC Television asked if Mattel would consider sponsoring a 15-minute segment of the show. The drawback was that Mattel would be obligated to sponsor the program for one entire 52-week season, which would cost Mattel $500,000, nearly its entire net worth. The campaign was an unabashed success, and Mattel instantly revolutionized the toy industry by turning a ‘mom-and-pop’ business with a seasonal focus on Christmas into a large-scale business enterprise that garnered impressive sales year-round. In fact, annual sales grew from
$5 million to $14 million in just three years. Advertising on television was one of two key decisions that the Handlers made during the 1950s, which transformed Mattel from a profitable business into an industry leader. The other key turning point was the invention and marketing of a three-dimensional doll through which little girls could act out their dreams of growing up. An instant sensation upon its introduction in 1959, Barbie® has since grown into a multi-billion dollar brand.
In the late 1960s, Mattel eagerly was in search of a toy hit that would capture boys’ imaginations the way that Barbie® did for girls. Elliot had an idea for miniature die-cast vehicles that would incorporate speed, power and performance, as well as cool car designs. Introduced in 1968, Hot Wheels® were distinguished with customized designs and outrageous paint jobs, and also became a number-one selling toy brand. Hot Wheels® reached a milestone in 1998 when the two-billionth car was manufactured and Mattel became the producer of more vehicles than Detroit’s big three carmakers combined. In 2003, Hot Wheels® marked its 35th anniversary by creating a permanent Hall Of Fame exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, a full-size, functioning model of one of the most popular Hot Wheels cars, and a new, integrated line of products for kids including character-based videos, comic books, online racing as well as Hot Wheels® cars.
Known as the “whiz kids of the toy industry,” the Handlers were renowned for inventing some of the world’s best-known toy brands. In 1973, Elliot was named Mattel’s Chairman of the Board, a position he would share with Ruth until 1975 when, after having helped nurture Mattel from a dollhouse furniture shop into a leading manufacturer, the Handlers left the company after more than 30 years. Elliot and Ruth became the first living inductees to the Toy Industry Hall of Fame in 1989.
Employees also held the Handlers in high esteem, due to their thoughtfulness and ability to make every employee feel that his or her contribution to the organization was valuable. In fact, the Handlers insisted that all of their employees call them by their first names at a time when such informality was unprecedented.
Elliot, the second of four brothers, grew up in Denver, Colorado and met Ruth Mosko at a charity dance in 1932 at the age of 17. Five years later, the couple married and moved to Los Angeles, where Ruth found a job at Paramount Studios as a stenographer and Elliot worked part-time at a lighting fixture company while also attending art school.
Elliot Handler had one daughter, Barbara Segal, for whom the Barbie® doll is named, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild. His son Kenneth, after whom the Ken® doll was named, died in 1994. His wife Ruth died in 2002 at the age of 85. Elliot passed away July 21, 2011 at the age of 95.