Foreword: Tikkun Olam
One summer afternoon, I joined Alan G. Hassenfeld for lunch at a seaside restaurant near his residence in Bristol, Rhode Island, his home state.
His wife, Vivien Maria Hassenfeld, joined us, together with two faculty members and five students from Brown University’s Hassenfeld Child Health Innovation Institute, which had opened with a $12.5-million gift from Alan and his family. Utilizing research, education and healthcare intervention, the Institute seeks solutions to childhood autism, asthma, obesity and other pervasive problems. Alan had invited the Brown folks to lunch so he could learn about the early progress. The students, the first group of the institute’s Child Heath Scholars, wanted to meet the man behind their mission.
Hassenfeld, former chairman and CEO of toy and entertainment giant Hasbro Inc., which reported record revenues of $5.21 billion in 2017 and $4.58 billion in 2018 after the collapse of toy retailer Toys R Us, listened to the young women and men, asking questions and sprinkling the conversation with humor. The students may have expected a benefactor demanding a strict accounting of how his money was being spent, as some donors would have, but instead they found an amiable man with a mischievous laugh and a degree of humility that belied his stature. His youthful energy matched theirs. With his tousled hair, penny loafers, collarless shirt and colorful wristbands, he looked like an unconventional sort of business executive.
He was, and he knew it. He enjoyed being Kid Number One, as he sometimes called himself – Pinocchio, he even said when feeling particularly impish. And he delighted in likening himself to Mr. Potato Head – “Pot Head,” he affectionately called it -- the whimsical toy that against odds became a national sensation the year it was introduced, 1952, when Hassenfeld was four and his only brother, Stephen, 10, was already dreaming of running Hasbro. On weekends and holidays, Stephen insisted on visiting the factories with the boys’ father, Merrill, who was running the toy company in the post-war years. The younger brother only wanted to have fun. Then, that is.
An hour or so into the lunch, Hassenfeld invited questions of himself.
“I want to hear a little bit more about your vision,” one student said.
“I don’t know if I can give you a real answer, but I won’t give you a Trump answer, either,” Hassenfeld joked.
The students laughed. They seemed no more enamored of the former reality-show host than was Hassenfeld, for whom the mere mention of the 45th president could prompt a denunciation of Donald Trump’s demagogic intolerance.
Hassenfeld answered the students.
“The success of my family has always been through working in the toy industry and the entertainment industry, with children and families,” he said. “I believe that if you’re going to give back, your philanthropy should be related to things that are close to your heart.”
Children, in other words.
Hassenfeld mentioned Rhode Island’s Hasbro Children’s Hospital, built with company and personal money during the 1990s while he headed Hasbro, and the newer Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital of New York at NYU, founded with a $50-million family gift led by Alan’s mother, the late Sylvia Grace Kay Hassenfeld. Alan could have gone on, although he did not, braggadocio not being among his traits. Kept internally, the unpublicized complete list of the diverse people and causes benefitting from Hassenfeld initiatives filled nine single-spaced pages. The Hasbro corporate philanthropy list also was lengthy, one of the reasons Corporate Responsibility Magazine rated the company number one on its 100 Best Corporate Citizens 2017 list, number five for 2018, and number 13 in 2019.
Hassenfeld discussed some of the new Brown institute’s specialties: among other health issues, the rise in incidence of autism and asthma troubled him. Budget issues in “a school, a region or a town” resulting in cutting child-nutrition programs did, too. And there were other matters that also bothered him that he did not mention but which he addressed philanthropically and with political activism.
The students were curious about Hassenfeld’s motivation.
“All of these things I do because I have a debt to repay,” he told them.
The promise to repay it, as they probably did not know, had been written in blood more than a century before, in a place far away.
At one point as we dined overlooking beautiful Narragansett Bay, where whitecaps danced beneath the August breeze, my thoughts drifted away from the students and their mentors, Institute head Dr. Patrick M. Vivier and fellow scientist Annie Gjelsvik.
I imagined an excursion one might take.
If you travelled north on the bay, you would reach the city of Providence, founded in 1636 by Roger Williams after Massachusetts Puritans expelled him for his beliefs in religious freedom and separation of church and state, which the Founders would make bedrock principles of the American republic and which would make Rhode Island an attractive new home for other refugees. Continuing up the Seekonk River to the Blackstone River and into the city of Pawtucket, you would pass Slater Mill, a museum now but the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s when Samuel Slater, a British immigrant, opened a water-powered, cotton-spinning factory in partnership with Moses Brown, a wealthy industrialist and co-founder of the university where the Hassenfeld Child Health Innovation Institute is based.
Further up the Blackstone River, you would find old buildings in the impoverished city of Central Falls where G.I. Joe toys once were manufactured – the factories that enchanted the young Stephen Hassenfeld in 1952. A ten-minute drive from there would bring you to 1027 Newport Avenue in Pawtucket, global headquarters today of Hasbro Inc., the company that made those toys – and still does, in China, India, Mexico, Turkey, Ireland and Massachusetts, though no longer in Rhode Island. Times have changed since “America’s Movable Fighting Man” first hit the market, and today the line contributes but a fraction of the Fortune 513 company’s annual revenues. Such other home-grown brands as Monopoly, Nerf and Transformers, integrated into a blockbuster movie franchise -- and licensed products including Star Wars, Disney and Marvel -- now power Hasbro, second largest toy company on the planet, after Lego. Mattel, once the industry leader, had fallen on hard times that were getting harder.
The company’s founders, brothers Hillel and Henry Hassenfeld, who immigrated to America in the summer of 1903, when they were penniless teenagers who spoke no English, could not have imagined such success. They left their native Poland to escape death at the hands of anti-Semites who slaughtered Jewish children and adults, not to build a global giant.
When they founded Hassenfeld Brothers, a Rhode Island textiles-remnants firm in 1917, Hasbro seemed destined for a modest place in global business history.
But the first Hassenfeld brothers expanded beyond textile remnants to pencil boxes, which they began to fill with writing instruments and rulers. On the eve of the Second World War, they used their boxes for play medical equipment, marketing them as junior doctor and nurse kits. The war brought Junior Air Raid Warden kits. But until Mr. Potato Head, introduced in 1952, Hasbro still showed little indication of the corporation it would become. The toy and games industry then was ruled by heavyweights Marx, Ideal, Lionel and Milton Bradley.
Pot Head, the first toy advertised on network TV and Hasbro’s first monster hit, began a decade of unprecedented success for the company, which broadened its offerings and forged partnerships with Hollywood. Those ties would reap still greater rewards in decades to come. Transformers and Star Wars and Disney’s Frozen and Princess today, for example.
And then came the fiasco of Flubber, which sold wildly when introduced in 1962 and crashed and burned the next year in a national scandal (the putty-like compound caused skin rashes, prompting lawsuits, scathing headlines and a Food and Drug Administration investigation, a devastating development in those Camelot days). Merrill, who ran the Hasbro toy division while his only brother, Harold, ran the pencil-manufacturing side of the family firm, pulled Flubber from the market – and prayed for some new toy-business magic, which seemed the only way to survive the company’s $5 million loss in 1963.
Merrill’s prayers were answered, with G.I. Joe, arguably the iconic boys’ toy of all time.
Just as the character would in the heroic storylines surrounding his introduction the next year, G.I. Joe became an unprecedented best-seller. From record loss, Hasbro earned a record profit of almost $6 million just two years later, a stunning turnaround in an industry beholden to the whims of kids and the pocketbooks of parents.
The company would continue to grow, albeit erratically with a succession of hits and misses characteristic of the toy and entertainment business -- and another near-fatal blow in the late 1970s as the Vietnam War and the skyrocketing price of plastic forced G.I. Joe into the bunkers. Enter Stephen, who steered Hasbro to Fortune 500 glory in the 1980s by building internally and acquiring Milton Bradley Company with its Playskool brand and timeless classic games, including Candyland, Chutes and Ladders, and The Game of Life, first sold the year before the Civil War began. Amazingly, and that really was the word, a toy company had become a Wall Street darling, sharing the same rarefied air as car manufacturers, petroleum producers and venerable General Electric.
When Stephen died, in 1989 at age 47 of AIDS, a disease he had kept secret from Wall Street and almost everyone else, even his mother, Alan succeeded him.
Some thought Kid Number One was ill-suited to run Hasbro.
Some thought he would kill it, and he almost did, though not for many years.
Alan was no Stephen, close as they were as siblings.
As a young man, Alan had wanted nothing to do with business, his family’s or anyone else’s. He wanted to be a writer or world-traveler – ideally, both, an adventure-seeking novelist roaming the globe and finding romance as he went. And then he volunteered for several months at an inner-city school named for Martin Luther King Jr., an immersion into a realm of poverty and racial discrimination that would profoundly influence his social-justice and human-rights beliefs, which his family had already begun to instill.
I’m making a difference, he thought.
He was nineteen years old.
Now there he was in 1989, forty years old and chairman and CEO of a mighty company – and an executive who gave some investors the shivers. Well, he did wear those penny loafers and colorful wristbands, one in memory of and promise to his first love, a teenaged girl left comatose in an accident who died as Alan, 18, stood vigil by her hospital bed. He did dance with Barney, the goofy purple plaything, at company meetings. He did try to see the good in everyone and he did take highly public stands against government corruption and for global human rights, regardless of how such crusades might affect the bottom line.
And he christened himself Kid Number One, which surely was no name that any of the strait-laced types who ran rival Mattel would have chosen.
But the last Hassenfeld brother made believers as the company continued to prosper and Alan acquired more crown jewels – Tonka Corporation, with its Kenner Parker Toys division and its Star Wars licenses among them – and fended off a hostile takeover attempt by Mattel, whose corporate soul sometimes was compared to a killer shark, with every good reason. Hasbro continued to climb the Fortune 500, reaching number 169 in 1994.
Alan’s unlikely success as a CEO is told in my bestselling book Toy Wars: The Epic Struggle Between G.I. Joe, Barbie and the Companies That Make Them, published in 1998.
And there the story ended -- my role as its teller, anyway.
In the years that followed, Hassenfeld and I have remained close.
I watched as Hasbro under Alan’s later stewardship plateaued, then nosedived, resurrecting painful memories of Flubber. I knew Alan blamed some of his own decisions for the company’s potentially fatal difficulties as the 20th century closed and how, putting pride and ego aside -- not something you see every day in the corporate world -- he decided to step down as CEO, leaving Hasbro in the hands of his long-time Number Two: Alfred J. Verrecchia, a financial wizard and another major character in Toy Wars and again now in Kid Number One with whom I also have remained close. Hassenfeld stayed on the board as chairman of the Executive Committee and he and his family continued as Hasbro’s biggest stockholders, but he was done with day-to-day operations, although he continued to offer advice (sometimes annoyingly so, as he would admit) to Verrecchia and Verrecchia’s successor, current chairman and CEO Brian Goldner.
Once again, the person who never intended to enter business morphed, this time from a part- to full-time philanthropist and social-justice and human-rights champion – a return, in essence, to the teenager who had made a difference. Only this time, he had not just conviction but deep pockets, including major holdings in a company whose stock at times in 2019 traded at more than $107 a share, a company and industry record. Retiring to a tropical island or buying a yacht or professional sports team was not for him, though his wealth would have allowed such indulgences. Like Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, George Soros and others with great fortunes who believed in benefitting humanity, Hassenfeld would devote his remaining years to others.
So he closed his office at Hasbro headquarters, opened a headquarters for the Hassenfeld Family Foundation, in the shadow of Brown University at the base of Providence’s College Hill, and with his mother and sister he got to work funding and supporting a multitude of causes, large and small. Goldner, the man he and Verrecchia had groomed to head the company, had proved his worth, and with Goldner and the Hasbro workforce lifting the company to new profitability, Hassenfeld enjoyed latitude not afforded everyone who dreams on a grand scale.
He was inspired by the legacy of his grandfather and great-uncle, the first Hassenfeld brothers, and his own father and his brother, Stephen, especially. Father Merrill died at work of a heart attack at age 61 in 1979, when Alan was just 30 but already entrusted with building Hasbro’s international business, which Stephen would need during the ascent to the Fortune 500. A community leader and benefactor, like his father, Henry, Merrill left his estate -- smaller than outsiders would have guessed -- to his family only. He explained his rationale in a letter to his wife and children intended to be read after his passing.
Nearly four decades later, Alan could recall it nearly verbatim. It encapsulated Merrill’s son’s own philosophy.
“Dad said ‘You’ll be surprised to see that in my whole life I’ve been very philanthropic but I’m not leaving anything to charity,’ ” Alan said. “I leave it all to you because in my lifetime, I have believed in living charity. And to do things today while you’re alive and able to see the fruits.’ ”
Alan’s own heart attack years later gave the son further perspective.
Like Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, Marc Benioff and other billionaires who have taken the The Giving Pledge, “a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy,” as The Pledge describes itself, Hassenfeld believed in the power of now, not the power of inheritance.
“The first day of the future is today,” he said. “If you don’t feed children today, if you don’t educate people today, there won’t be a future. So what are you saving your money for?”
More publicly, Hassenfeld also continued as an advocate for better healthcare, gun control, abortion rights, and political and ethics reform, among other issues – a man willing to commit not only his fortune but his voice to the common good, sometimes to the scorn of letter-writing and social media-trolling critics who mocked him as a bleeding heart, or worse.
Sometimes, cloaked in their cowardly anonymity, the trolls exhibited anti-Semitism that echoed of that which Henry and Hillel Hassenfeld witnessed more than a century before in Eastern Europe. This troll, for example, who reacted to the news that Hassenfeld would lead a coalition supporting gun-control candidates:
“They are a traitorous group to the American People… ALL a bunch of Jews BTW, all want our guns. History shows this jewish inlfuence will be the downfall of this country. They (jews) look upon all of us as Goyim, wake up folks.”
This quote is verbatim, spelling and grammar as written.
But Hassenfeld was not deterred by such ugliness. His family never had been. Hassenfelds had survived worse.
And from that survival, they had embraced the Judaic tenet of Tikkun Olam, meaning “repairing the world.” They believed in giving back, a commitment first made by the original Hasbro brothers -- who, having found safety and prosperity in America, committed themselves to resettling European Jews and numerous philanthropic endeavors, religious and secular, domestically and abroad.
Every Hassenfeld -- brothers, sisters, wives -- had a debt to repay.
Alan was repaying it with generosity and humor -- and some of the humor derived from the toy with which he most closely associated. Hassenfeld was often asked to name his favorite plaything, and he always responded that they were “all my children” and no good parent would ever single out one, but in truth, he placed Pot Head first among equals and not only because it was Hasbro’s oldest toy still on the market and was roughly his age. Like Hassenfeld, Mr. Potato Head had continually transformed himself, becoming a succession of characters that suited his ambitions and reflected, if you will, what was beneath his skin.
Originally sold as plastic eyes, ears, mouths and noses intended to be stuck into actual vegetables, Mr. Potato Head eventually was sold with a plastic body. Mrs. Potato Head appeared in 1953, a year after her husband, and the couple brought forth daughter Yam and son Spud, a playful sort of all-American family that mirrored the consumer aspirations and gender roles of the post-war nation with its blossoming Baby Boom. Later Potato Heads flew to the moon, joined the circus, time-travelled back to the Wild West, and took many more exotic (and mundane) journeys. Following the blockbuster movie Toy Story, released in 1995 while Hassenfeld was CEO, the toy has been reinvented in themes including Star Wars, Iron Man, Batman, The Simpsons, Indiana Jones, Three Stooges and the Wizard of Oz. And Transformers, of course: among them, Bumble Spud and the Opti-Mash Prime Mr. Potato Head, a playfully punny mashup of two toy icons.
In one way or another, to greater or lesser degree, Hassenfeld has embraced the spirit of many of those things -- though, he would have you know, “never Darth Vader!”
View Hassenfeld in a certain soft light and with a touch of imagination, and you can almost see a physical resemblance to his favorite toy. Visit Hassenfeld’s office at Hassenfeld Family Initiatives, and you find it decorated with Mr. Potato Head sets, figures and cartoons, alongside G.I. Joes, Monopoly games, and other Hasbro products and mementoes. You could lose an hour exploring them all, and I have. Hassenfeld’s office qualifies as a mini toy museum, albeit one heavily flavored by the company the first brothers founded.
Attractively framed, several of the Pot Head cartoons grace the brick walls.
One is by Garfield creator Jim Davis, who in 2001 had produced a Mr. Potato Head cartoon. The three-panel strip shows Mr. Potato Head pounding hooks into a pegboard; Mr. Potato Head resting after the jobs was done; and Mr. Potato Head’s arm and hammer hanging from the board, the rest of him nowhere to be seen.
“To: ALAN – Best Wishes! – Jim Davis” it is signed.
Another cartoon on Hassenfeld’s wall, “The Mr. Potato Head Murder Trial,” drawn by Bizarro creator Dan Piraro, depicts a prosecutor facing a judge in a courtroom. Tagged as evidence, several items commonly found in a kitchen cover a table next to the prosecutor.
“If it pleases the court,” the prosecutor says, “the prosecution would like to enter the following items into evidence: a knife, a fork, sour cream, butter, chives, bacon bits…”
For birthday greetings, Hassenfeld might send a Mr. Potato Head card with a depiction of the toy standing at a bathroom urinal. “Oh great, I left it at home!” the toy is saying. “Getting older can make you a little forgetful,” the card declares, and then, inside: “At least you don’t have detachable parts. Happy birthday.”
Yes, Pot Head’s humor was Hassenfeld’s. Or was it vice-versa?
It could be difficult to say. Hassenfeld sometimes spoke of Mr. Potato Head as a person, giving the toy a human voice and moral authority, as if it had a conscience matching Hassenfeld’s. In an era of narcissism and self-serving men in power, a conscience counted.
Toy Wars was published in 1998, when Alan Hassenfeld was still Hasbro chairman, president and CEO, acing his corporate game. Much happened before the period documented in that book – events that have been barely mentioned publicly or completely untold, until now. Much has happened since that also has gone largely unchronicled, including disastrous decisions Hassenfeld made involving Pokémon that almost killed the company.
Thus, Kid Number One is really both prequel and sequel, a new contribution to the literature of an industry unlike any other, and the real people and fictional characters – a century-and-a-half’s worth of toy, game and screen icons -- that created and maintain it. Having become an elder statesman of that world, Hassenfeld is uncommonly qualified to serve as tour guide.
So this book is many interwoven stories -- some entertaining, some educational, some historical, some inspirational to those who share Hassenfeld’s belief in Tikkun Olam.
The first opens on that bloody Easter Sunday in 1903, when Christian mobs in Kishinev, now the city of Chișinău, Moldova, slaughtered Jewish children, women and men until, as The New York Times reported, “at sunset, the streets were piled with corpses…”
G. Wayne Miller
Providence, Rhode Island