Interview with Ken Malouf of Uncle Milton Industries
Ken Malouf, Vice President of Marketing & Product Management – Uncle Milton Industries
Why and how did you get into the Toy and Game industry?
Earlier in my career, I was fortunate enough to help develop and grow many great brands both at Nestle and Disney, many of which were targeted to kids. I saw the toy industry as a perfect way to blend my consumer products and entertainment experience into a whole new, exciting category of products. I’ve always enjoyed the strategic and creative factors that go into creating new products, something the toy industry depends on. In addition, I love the opportunity every day to create toys that will have lasting and positive impacts on kids – ones that hopefully they will fondly recall and share with their own kids some day!
What trends do you see in toys or games that excite or worry you?
Many of the trends in the toy industry are ongoing trends that continue to accelerate each year. The notion of kids getting older younger, the blurring of product categories, the infusion of new technologies into toys and the time shifting of kids away from traditional toys to technology are just a few of these. The last trend is probably the one that is both the most exciting and the most concerning. The concern is that while technology has become a way of life for today’s kids, screen time has skyrocketed and dramatically shifted time away from more physical, hands-on play as well as more imaginative play, both of which are so important to a child’s development. Our industry is going through a major transformation. The opportunity is finding ways to blend technology with physical and imaginative play in creating all new play experiences. At Uncle Milton, we continue to innovate toys with new technologies from brainwave technology to virtual reality. One of our newest brands, Virtual Explorer, is all about bringing together physical play with technology into creating integrated play and learning experiences that strive to achieve the best of both worlds.
What advice can you give to inventors who are presenting new toy or game ideas to you?
Know your audience. It’s important to understand what the DNA of Uncle Milton is all about and the strategic directions that we are headed with the products and brands we are launching. If you research us further, you’ll see what makes our positioning unique in the product categories we compete in and be better equipped to come up with new ideas that will help us to redefine and innovate in those areas. There’s nothing worse than a “me-too” idea or one that is just an old idea repackaged. Partners that can do this and can bring truly innovative ideas that enhance these strategic directions are the ones we look forward to working with.
What was your favorite toy or game as a child?
As a kid, I was a big fan of games – board games, party games, card games, you name it. I had a big collection and used to challenge my friends and family to play all the time. I loved the strategy and the thinking involved in many of these games. Whenever it was time to go visit grandma, you could always rely on a couple of grocery bags full of games ready for the occasion. As I got older, at parties I was often the game show host – getting everyone jazzed up and actively participating. There’s nothing better than seeing the genuine enjoyment of people interacting together, playing a game. Nowadays, I look forward to game nights with my family.
How do you jumpstart your creativity when you find yourself stalled on a project?
Sometimes you have to just get out of the office and use the world around you as your inspiration. I’m constantly brainstorming and thinking of ideas through the various activities of my life. Insight can come from many places – observing others, reading books, going to new places, immersing yourself into new cultures and just asking the everyday “how” and “why” questions that define why people act certain ways and buy the products that they do. It’s learning from these everyday interactions that can often lead to the “a-ha” that I needed.
Do you have any kiddos?
Yes, two. I have an 11-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son. They are my at-home focus group as well as the inspiration for many of the toys I’m involved in helping to create. Seeing how they react to great new toys we make is something that motivates me, knowing that other kids will share in the same joy.
What’s your favorite TV show?
I have one comment on this – turn off the TV, go outside and enjoy each day!
Do you have any special talents?
I am a trained vocalist and have been performing most of my life. I’ve performed in musicals, classical chamber choirs, a cappella groups, vocal jazz groups and many others. I even have an international Barbershop gold medal from my days with the Masters of Harmony, a 100 voice barbershop chorus. Most recently I was in a vocal jazz quartet that performed throughout the Los Angeles area. I’m the Bass so if you hear a low note ringing out in the chord, that would be me! It awakens the creative side of me and I love positively impacting others through music.
What do you like to do away from the office?
I really enjoy getting outdoors – going camping, to the beach, to national parks, and many other places. I love sports – both playing and coaching. I still play full court basketball regularly along with various outdoors sports as my schedule allows. For many years I’ve coached youth sports – especially basketball and baseball. It’s one of the most rewarding things I do. Teaching kids not only the fundamentals of these sports but how to support each other and play together as a team are key ingredients to the success and chemistry of these teams. There’s nothing better than one of my players coming up to me after the season saying a big “Thanks Coach Ken” and “I can’t wait to play again next year.” Also, as I said before, I love singing and I enjoy and appreciate music of all kinds – much to the chagrin of my kids sitting in the back seat! Most especially, just spending time with my family is the best and I can never get enough time doing that.