The Man of a Thousand Toys (2009)
I wrote this many years ago, and recently learned that the subject of this piece has sold his company for a large profit. So, I dug this up, and decided to post it. Images added in 2017.
In what looks like an old abandoned factory in Cumberland, RI lies a magical place where toys are invented, designed, and shipped. The owner, is not Santa, but Mr. Fred Roses, a man of a thousand toys.
I meet Fred Roses in a local Starbucks, where I have to fight to keep the vacant seat beside me. When Roses arrives, I offer to buy him a cup of joe, to which he declines, telling me to keep the money and not tell my parents. “You have to be sneaky like that,” he tells me, sitting down at the cramped table.
Fred Roses is a well built man with a neatly trimmed goatee and thinning hair. His manner is thick with a dry humor, constantly making me always wonder if he is poking fun at me. He probably is. Roses is the founder of Fred & Friends, a company based in Rhode Island.
Fred & Friends is admittedly not solely a toy company, rather a humorous novelty company that sells anything from cream pitchers looking like udders to shot glasses that reveal scantily-clad ladies and gentlemen when filled. When asked which of his “toys” is his favorite, he replies, “All are my babies.”
Roses started his business in 1978, an important year as I find out later. “I was sort of restless, looking for something do.” Roses always wanted to be an engaged worker, not confined to an office job. “I saw the four walls as a prison cell.” A friend of Roses’ mother was a refugee from the Cuban Revolution. Her husband, who was a “wonderful, beloved, old, kind of weirdo guy,” had bought an old jewelry business. One day, when Roses walked into the man’s office, he noticed the wall next to his desk.
It was covered in little enameled lapel pins, which had all sorts of odd and quirky things on them. “These are great!” exclaimed Roses. Interested in the pins, Roses remarked that some of his friends would love them. The man offered Roses a few to take to his friends. Roses’ friends loved the pins and he saw an opportunity to make some money. Later, Roses came back to the office with the wall of enameled pins and inquired if the man would sell him some pins that Roses could resell.
The man declined, but offered to show Roses how to make them instead. “This is the classic phrase,” Roses tells me, ‘you don’t give someone a fish, you give them a fishing rod.’” The way items were made in Rhode Island in those days worked something like this: you would have a man who would pour the plastic in the molds, and someone who would attach the pins, and so on and so on. The gentleman kindly showed Roses how this worked, and all of a sudden, Roses was his own source of pins.
1978 was the year Charlie Chaplin’s remains were stolen, Dick Smith towed a fake iceberg to Sydney Harbor, Garfield, the comic strip made its debut and the movie, Annie Hall, came out. Did you catch that last one? Annie Hall was a Woody Allen movie in which Annie Hall, the main character, wore more masculine clothing.
This fashion became the new fad, thus propelling Roses’ business. The women at that time took to wearing masculine clothing with little enameled lapel pins, Roses’ specialty. His first project was successful. “When you start a business, your first project has to be successful,” Roses remarks.
Fred Roses was born in Providence, Rhode Island. He had a perfectly normal childhood which he believes had little or no impact on his professional career. Roses grew up in the 1950s which he found very predictable. He was not toy obsessed and was not a collector.
Roses father ran a menswear store, and his mother was a domestic engineer. He got out of college in 1968, a time when “everyone wanted to have sex all the time.”
“I got out of college, this is more interesting, in 1968, and it was a very interesting time because if you read your history books, 1968 was a very turbulent time in American history: Vietnam, the Vietnam War had torn the country apart, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, there were, you know, assassinations. There was acid. There was flower power. There were war protests. It was an amazing time. I graduated from college 1968 which was essentially, you could say, the summer of love, which was 1966 out in California, but it didn’t really reach the East Coast until a year or two later, so you could say that my entire youth was under the old rules, the old lauries and poems.”
“Many people would say that their adulthood begins when they get out of school, right? When I got out of school, all of the rules changed and there were a lot of us who graduated in 1968, 1969, who didn’t take conventional jobs or didn’t pursue their careers right away. There was a lot of postponed adolescence. A lot of wandering around, staring at our navels.”
As we begin to end the interview I move to some of the tougher, quicker questions. “What’s been your biggest obstacle? How do you think it has influenced you professionally?” I inquire.
“Me.” Entrepreneurs, he tells me, are not patient, organized or at all business like.
“Do you admire anyone?”
“Ted Turner, Steve Jobs, I don’t like Steve Jobs, I think he’s an asshole, but I admire him.”
“I don’t think anyone points to me as a role model, at least I hope they don’t.”