Finding the Sweet Spot

For Topps CEO, challenges are in the cards.

May/June 2011

Reading time min

Finding the Sweet Spot

Photo: Ashton Worthington

Once a year, in February or so, Ryan O'Hara and his colleagues gather in a room at their New York headquarters and tear open the first arrivals of that season's packages, fresh from the factory. They churn through the contents, pausing to enjoy the treasures concealed within, and turn them over and over in their hands. Occasionally, famous people stop by to join in.

They aren't fondling shoes or the latest gadget. And although this annual ritual is ostensibly a quality control exercise, the executives at the Topps Co. Inc. aren't merely sampling product—they're reconnecting with something they loved as kids.

The "rip party" is all about baseball cards. Describing it, O'Hara, '91, tries not to sound too gleeful, lest the interviewer get the wrong idea. "It's still a job," he feels compelled to point out.

Okay, so it is. But when you are the CEO of a company synonymous with happy childhood memories, a company whose products are beloved keepsakes hoarded in shoeboxes and coveted rarities worth thousands of dollars, you don't need a pep talk to get ready for work every morning. "It isn't medicine, but I do like that we're making something that's good for kids," O'Hara says.

Topps is one of the most venerable youth brands in America—maker of gum and candy since 1938, but most famous for the baseball cards it has produced annually since 1951. Topps cards have inspired books and museum exhibitions and now qualify as cultural artifacts. When eulogizing Yankees superstar Mickey Mantle in 1998, sportscaster Bob Costas noted "we can still recall the immediate tingle in that instant of recognition when a Mickey Mantle popped up in a pack of Topps bubble gum cards, a treasure lodged between an Eli Grba and a Pumpsie Green." Costas carries a 1958 Topps card of Mantle in his wallet.

O'Hara's respect for the company's heritage runs deep, but he is not sentimental when assessing the business. In an era when video games dominate the leisure time of boys (card collecting skews heavily male), Topps must work harder than ever to attract new hobbyists. "Kids have a lot of entertainment options, so grabbing their attention and getting a share of their time and interest is a challenge," O'Hara says. "Topps is an iconic company, and care needs to be taken with the brand. At the same time, we need to grow it and expand it."

He aims to do that by marketing underutilized Topps properties via TV, film and the web. Work is under way on an animated series featuring the Garbage Pail Kids, the gross-out characters introduced in the 1980s, and a live animation film about Bazooka Joe, the eye patch-wearing wiseacre of the comic strips pictured on bubble gum wrappers for decades.

Former Disney chairman Michael Eisner, who purchased Topps in 2007 with a group of investors, praised O'Hara as "an outstanding leader" when he hired him in February 2010 and said O'Hara's background made him a great fit for the job. O'Hara has more than a decade of experience in media, first at Fox Sports, where he was instrumental in negotiating TV rights to NASCAR and other big-time events, and at the TV Guide Network, where he was president. He worked at Nestlé for four years immediately after graduating from Stanford.

O'Hara attended Stanford on a volleyball scholarship and played on the 1989 team, which was runner-up for the national championship. An economics major, he says Professor Larry Goulder, PhD '82, was an important influence and supported his admission to Harvard Business School, where he earned an MBA.

His Stanford roommate at Branner freshman year was Andy Richard, '91. "He took the better bed," O'Hara jokes. The two remain close friends. "Ryan has always been my 'go-to' person for my major life and professional decisions," Richard says. "When I was asked to move to London, I remember debating the pros and cons with Ryan endlessly; when I made another career change Ryan was right there by my side helping me make the decision. He has amazing positive energy."

For a guy who values long-term relationships, landing at Topps has a certain symmetry for O'Hara. "Baseball cards were an integral part of my friendships" as a boy, he recalls. His savvy at trading and selling cards from his own collection became a small business when, at age 12, he received $1,000 and a letter from his father encouraging him to "use your brains and know-how, and my capital" to earn a profit. O'Hara showed that letter, dated June 1981, to the Topps executives who interviewed him for the CEO job.

Today's card collectors are as likely to be adults as kids. Topps's high-end products—packs with autographed cards, for example, retail for $50 or more—are aimed at grownups. But you can still get a handful of cards for 99 cents, and the tradition that attaches to finding your favorite player hasn't changed. O'Hara says Topps's enduring success hinges partly on its intergenerational appeal. "It's a father-son business."

Kevin Cool is the former executive editor of Stanford.

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.