WisBusiness: Mattel chief says company is winning back trust

By Brian E. Clark

MADISON – It’s an understatement to say the past few months have been trying for Mattel, the world’s largest toymaker.

But Robert Eckert, the company’s chairman and chief executive officer, said the numerous high-profile recalls – including one announced Thursday by Fisher Price, a Mattel subsidiary – illustrate the company’s continuing efforts to put the safety of children first.

He spoke at the annual dinner of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce. His theme was “Trust in Brands and Business.”

Eckert, who was president of Madison-based Oscar Meyer from 1993 to 1996, said his company is recovering from its difficulties and working to restore the faith of parents who buy Mattel’s toys for their children.

He did not discuss, however, what whether the recall of toys for lead paint contamination – as well separate recalls of magnets – had hurt the company’s bottom line.

Nor did he make any predictions about how well Mattel would do during the upcoming holiday season. He took no questions from the audience and declined requests for interviews.

Eckert, who has four children, said his company had to win back trust through deeds, not just words.

“First and foremost, I am a parent,” he said.

Eckert said Mattel has had advanced product safety standards for decades.

“That is why this issue has been such a disappointment for me,” he said, acknowledging that his company “is not perfect.”

Though he said the amount of lead paint on some toys was very small and noted that the recalls affected less than half of 1 percent of the company’s production, he apologized for mistakes.

“These recalls should never have happened,” he said. “Standards were ignored and rules were broken.”

Since the recalls, Eckert said he has flown to China to meet with factory managers to make sure they understood what a serious matter this is to him and the company.

He said Mattel has now added additional controls, more testing and unannounced inspections of plants.

He said the efforts to contact parents who have bought affected toys from Mattel have been successful, contacting 6 million through the Internet, mail and phone.

Eckert said he expects independent third-party reviews to be tough on Mattel, but he said he will not hesitate to publish them on the company’s Web site.

“You cannot take consumer trust for granted,” said Eckert, who also said the company has attempted to improve working conditions at factories where its toys are made for more than a decade.

And he said Mattel’s Global Manufacturing Principles are being adopted by other companies around the globe.

“It is crucially important to show that we can make a difference,” he said. “That is why integrity and openness are so important. We must walk the walk of transparency, even in the worst of times.

“We will never be perfect,” he allowed. “But we are helping the toy industry evolve.”