The Rise Of Jill Barad

Mattel's fierce, flamboyant CEO is breaking stereotypes about corporate success

It's nearly showtime for Jill E. Barad. Just in from Los Angeles, the chairman and chief executive of toy giant Mattel Inc. is fine-tuning her lines in the backseat of a limo as it maneuvers through Manhattan. In about an hour, she will be onstage in front of 1,200 people at the New York Hilton to receive an award from Girls Inc., formerly Girls Club of America.

At the luncheon, Barad, dressed in her signature high heels and tailored Chanel suit, listens intently as three other women accept their awards. Professional and businesslike, they receive polite applause from the crowd. But when Barad finally strides into the spotlight, the effect is electrifying.

Glamorous and radiant, she seems more Hollywood than corporate. Sharing the stage with a college-bound 18-year-old girl who has struggled with alcoholism and drug problems, Barad clutches the girl as if she has known her all her life, then launches into a rousing sermon on overcoming obstacles and achieving dreams. "My mother gave me a bumblebee pin when I started work," recalls Barad. "She said: `Aerodynamically, bees shouldn't be able to fly. But they do.' Remember that. I can say that for you girls, anything is possible." It's a line Barad has used before. The room erupts into thunderous applause.

Few executives can work a crowd like Jill Barad. "You can't help but be sucked up by her energy," says Shelly Lazarus, CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide Inc., Mattel's advertising agency. Fewer still know how to work an audience so easily while weaving in a plug for their company. "At Mattel, I worked on a brand that changed my life, and her name was Barbie," she says, staring intently into the audience. "When Barbie is in a little girl's hands, she is a vehicle for dreaming, for imagining what girls can be."

There's no small irony that one of the most powerful, highest-paid women in Corporate America credits her success to selling an icon that women's groups have been denouncing as sexist and demeaning for decades. But make no mistake: Barad is no Barbie. A fierce competitor with an unerring eye for trends in popular culture, she has used her keenly tuned sense of style, packaging, and consumer tastes to help build Mattel into a $4.8 billion powerhouse. And in her rise to the top, the 46-year old Barad has shown herself to be as tough inside her own company as she is in her dealings with competitors in the cutthroat, big-bucks toy industry.

Barad started at Mattel as a $38,000-a-year product manager in 1981. She rose to CEO by January, 1997. Over the past three years, she has pocketed $23 million, and she holds options to buy 4.9 million Mattel shares. At a time when such top female executives as PepsiCo Inc.'s Brenda Barnes have left Corporate America behind to spend more time with their families and others remain thwarted by the glass ceiling, Barad is one of a handful of women to head a major American company.

Today, Barad is so rich and powerful that, like it or not, she has become a role model for many ambitious women trying to balance career and family. On the boards of Microsoft Corp. and Pixar Inc., Barad counts among her circle of associates Silicon Valley titans and Hollywood celebrities. "She has broken every stereotype about successful corporate women," says Sheila Wellington, president of Catalyst, a group that does research on women in business. "She has proven you can work your way up from the bottom, that you can have a family and be a CEO, and that you can be very tough and very feminine."

That's just the sort of comment that makes Barad squirm. She insists she never asked to be a role model and wants only to be judged on her track record as any other executive. And it is stellar. As head of the Barbie line starting in 1983, Barad was key in pulling off one of the most dramatic turnarounds in recent memory. Recovering from near-bankruptcy in the 1980s, Mattel has boasted 33% annual compounded growth over the past decade. Its share price has also soared, roughly quadrupling since 1994, to $42.

Mattel owes most of its success to Barbie. The doll's sales grew from $200 million in 1982 to $1.9 billion last year, making it one of the most recognizable and dominant brands on the planet. Even after acquiring rivals Tyco Toys Inc. and Fisher-Price Inc. in recent years--moves meant to broaden its product lines-- Barbie still contributes 38% of Mattel's sales. And though Mattel doesn't break it out, analyst Harold Vogel of Cowen & Co. figures Barbie rakes in a phenomenal 55% of operating profits.

BIG TASKS. Now, Barad may be facing her biggest challenge yet: proving she can keep the Mattel success story going. On Apr. 16, the company reported a 16% drop in Barbie sales, the first such quarterly decline in five years. And after growing at roughly a 20% annual clip in the mid-'90s, analysts expect Barbie sales to slow to just 6% this year. Although part of the problem stems from a Toys `R' Us Inc. inventory adjustment, the larger issue may be that Barad has simply done her job too well. Little girls' bedroom closets are stuffed with Barbies: The average American girl owns nine. "Barbie is hardly in a tailspin," says John G. Taylor, an analyst at Portland (Ore.)'s Arcadia Investment Group. "But as a growth vehicle, she is starting to look questionable."

With Barbie's growth waning, Barad is counting on its 1997 Tyco buy to pick up the slack. So far, the strategy is working. By trimming costs and rapidly folding Tyco's popular Sesame Street and Matchbox toys into the fold, Mattel pushed 1997 earnings up 34%, to $500 million, on revenues up 7%, to $4.8 billion. This year, Vogel projects earnings growth of 16%, on a 6% sales hike.

But behind the solid numbers, Barad faces some big tasks. The $1 billion Fisher-Price unit remains troubled after a failed push into pricey playground gear. And revving up Barbie again won't be child's play. In the U.S., Mattel is counting on a recent makeover to revive demand; the busty doll will gradually be replaced by one with a more up-to-date look and realistic proportions. But Mattel is pinning its real hopes overseas. To boost sales abroad, where Barbie isn't omnipresent, Barad is introducing new dolls tailored to regional cultures.

Indeed, with all Mattel's brands, Barad is making a major push to expand into global markets. She vows to double international sales, to $3.4 billion, within five years. To get there, Barad has overhauled Mattel's global marketing and centralized its European warehousing and shipping. Still, international growth is a strategy Mattel has tried and failed with before: Overseas sales have been flat for four years, hovering at $1.6 billion.

Barad isn't worried. She relishes a good fight. "When it comes to strategic underpinnings and what is broken and what needs to be fixed, those are the challenges that I love," she says. "I love looking for the holes." She has already plugged a bunch of them. It was Barad who forged several of Mattel's key links to Hollywood studios. She fought for and won an expanded agreement with Walt Disney Co. for the right to license toys based on its films. She cut a similar deal with Viacom Inc.'s Nickelodeon years before the cable network became a huge hit. Today, Mattel gets an estimated 10% of operating profits from such entertainment deals.

It's all a long way from the life Barad imagined for herself growing up in Queens, N.Y. All her interests as a youngster pointed toward show biz--a reflection, perhaps, of her father, Lawrence S. Elikann, a technical director for NBC and later a TV director and producer. Even as a small girl, Barad loved to dress up and put on shows. She memorized Broadway show tunes, then would put on nightly performances. "I'd try to go to sleep, and she'd be standing up on her bed, belting out songs from Oklahoma! or The Sound of Music," says her sister, Jo-Anne Elikann.

When Barad was 16, she got a summer job modeling bell-bottoms for a company called Happylegs. But she did more than pose. "She couldn't wait to try on the clothes, to learn how to meet customers, how to sell, how to talk," says Arlene Qule, an owner in the family-run operation. "She took everything in."

After three years at Queens College, Barad dropped out in 1971 to take an $18,000-a-year gig selling makeup for Love Cosmetics. Back at school a year later, she got a degree in drama and English. "I had no clue what I wanted to do," says Barad. "I just saw jobs as fun. I had no goals." She tried acting and landed a bit part--a nonspeaking role as Miss Italian America in a forgettable Dino De Laurentiis film, Crazy Joe. But Tinseltown wasn't for Jill. "It was so superficial, so silly," says Barad.

In 1974, she went to work for Coty Cosmetics as a traveling cosmetician-trainer. As she traveled the East Coast, she noticed that wherever she went, Coty products were hidden away. So Barad designed a wall display for a facial powder and sent it to headquarters. "She knew conceptually what could be done to make the products look better in stores. We used her display for 20 years," says Jim McDougald, Barad's boss and now a senior vice-president at Coty.

Then, six months after meeting an aspiring movie producer, Thomas K. Barad, Jill shelved her Coty career to join him in Los Angeles. Barad, then 26, quickly got a job at an advertising agency representing the Max Factor & Co. account. The couple married a year later, in 1979. A few months after that, when she realized she was pregnant, Barad quit her job. "I said O.K., that's it. I am now a wife and a mother."

It was a job description she had always assumed would suit her just fine. But when the baby came, Barad fell into a depression. For the first time, she realized just how much work meant to her. "It wasn't the baby," she insists. "He slept all the time. It wasn't fair." Frustrated at home, with little to do, Barad found daily relief by putting her newborn, Alex, in his carriage and rolling him into a nearby May Company Department Store, where she sized up the new fashions.

"I would come home from work and all this unspent energy would hit me," recalls her husband, Tom. "I told her to go back to work." Through a headhunter, Barad landed at Mattel's novelty-development unit. It was an obscure backwater, but Barad zealously attacked each assignment. Her first project was "A Bad Case of Worms." The rubbery toys were supposed to slither down walls. Instead, they dropped to the floor. Barad stayed up all night to rush out a commercial to present the next morning to Toys `R' Us buyers.

"WHO IS THIS GIRL?" The product flopped, but Barad's homemade promo moved a lot of worms. It also won the attention of her boss. "When someone does something like that, you stop and say: `Who is this girl?"' recalls Tom Kalinske, then head of Mattel and now CEO of Knowledge Universe, an education-services company. He found out quickly enough. Barad soon stormed into his office. "`What the f--- do I have to do to get a decent assignment around here?"' Kalinske recalls. Barad's memory is different. "I think I said: `There must be something better than worms."' But, she adds, "I always fought for my point of view."

With her sharp tongue and combative nature, Barad thrived in Mattel's competitive culture. "It has always been a place where people are pitted against each other," says Judy Schakelford, Barad's former boss. "It's a shark pond. You throw people in and see if they can swim fast enough to stay alive. For Jill, it was a fit." After just two years with the company--and a string of hits, including She-Ra, the first action figure for girls--Barad landed on the Barbie team as one of two product managers.

Barbie had been a Mattel mainstay since her introduction in 1959. But by the early 1980s, she seemed dated. Barad's job was coming up with "roles" that would turn Barbie into a doll for the '80s. Her first big hit, in 1985, was the Day to Night Barbie. By day, Barbie was a stylish exec; by night, a party girl. The doll sold out in months.

There were many more victories as Barad built Barbie from a respectable $200 million product to a $1.9 billion brand using a "segmentation" strategy. The idea was to pump up sales by selling dolls for countless "play patterns," such as shopping, dating, and going to the beach. It wasn't Barad's concept, but she executed it beyond anyone's wildest dreams.

Still, there were chaotic days in the mid-1980s, when Mattel was on the brink of bankruptcy after the collapse of its videogame business in 1984, and again in 1987, when its popular action-figure line, Masters of the Universe, deflated. And as she rose, Barad's politicking and flamboyance rubbed some the wrong way. "Many men hated me," she says. "I think it can be a tough thing for a man to lose to a woman."

One boss called Barad into his office and dressed her down for constantly shooting off her mouth at meetings. "He said: `You shouldn't pretend to know all the answers,"' she recalls. And he warned her that she "wouldn't go far." Indeed, when another male manager was brought in over her, Barad was so convinced he was about to fire her that she stormed out of the company. The manager, Joe Morrison, claims he had no such plans but concedes there was strife between Barad and the four other marketing vice-presidents, who complained that Barad wasn't a team player.

Women, too, were taken aback by Barad's style. She arrived at Mattel at a time when many working women were wearing conservative navy-blue suits. But Barad showed up in short purple skirts with matching purple cowboy boots. "One woman took me aside and said it might be to be my advantage to tone it down," says Barad. "I did. But I never became a corporate he-woman."

The turmoil seemed only to heighten Barad's appetite for sparring. "I just always wanted the next job," she says. "She was never afraid to go in and ask for a raise," says Paul Cleveland, who headed boys' toys in the mid-'80s, when Barad headed girls' toys. "She would just go in and tell people what she wanted, and ask: `What do I have to do to get it?"'

Barad's maneuvering inside the company was nothing compared with how she went for the competition's jugular. When Kenner Products tried to introduce its Miss America fashion-doll line, Barad quickly readied Beauty Pageant Barbie and pressured retailers not to carry both. Mattel also sued Kenner for copyright infringement. "She literally stopped us at the docks," recalls Bruce Stein, former head of Kenner and now No.2 to Barad as Mattel's president. "I was really pissed off," he says. "But I guess I also had to admire her ferocity."

In 1989, Barad, then an executive vice-president, made a bold move: She threatened to leave for a top job at Reebok International Ltd. unless she got a promotion. Barad even told Mattel that she had looked for a new house in Boston. Reebok officials decline comment on the episode, but CEO John Amerman made Barad a co-president of Mattel's U.S. operations. Then, in 1992, she went back to Amerman, this time demanding assurances that she would succeed him. "There was some trepidation on both sides," says Amerman. "My retirement was still a long way away." Even so, Amerman made her president and chief operating officer. And with incentives, Barad's compensation doubled, to $2 million. Her contract even included a guaranteed payout of five years' compensation if she were passed over for CEO.

When Barad finally took over, the transition was rocky. By nature spontaneous and emotional, she took over from the calm, distinguished, white-haired Amerman, who was 20 years her senior, just as the paint was beginning to chip off Mattel. There was an employee lawsuit that had to be dealt with, charging accounting irregularities, and sales were sinking at its Fisher-Price subsidiary.

TICKER SHOCK. Initially, Barad's inexperience with the financial community only made things worse. Just a few weeks on the job, she told analysts that she would no longer focus on short-term results. "Judge us on the year," she declared. Wall Street made its judgment by the end of the call. "I was like, oh, this is really fun, I love this job," says Barad. "My first week, our stock plummets eight points."

But as Barad found her way, she moved quickly to put her imprint on Mattel and its culture. From repainting the walls in bright colors to extending benefits to domestic partners and lengthening Christmas vacation to 16 days, Barad has clearly taken charge. When she finished her annual financial review, replayed on video for Mattel's 25,000 employees, she extended both arms, saying: "I love you all." Says Barad: "This is my feminine, nurturing side."

Barad is also working overtime to put her stamp on Mattel's strategy. She is trying to catch Hasbro in a push to blend traditional toys with the exploding world of computers and the Internet. Mattel has created a new generation of Pooh Bears, race cars, and other toys stuffed with microprocessors, including a Barbie digital camera that lets girls take pictures of themselves, then download their images to appear on the screen with Barbie. Although still small, the division quadrupled last year, to $80 million in sales.

To move closer to the digital world, Barad has joined the boards of Microsoft and Pixar. In 1997, Mattel joined a consortium at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop standards for high-tech toys and formed a joint venture with Intel Corp. to create futuristic toys. "She is a dynamo," says Intel Chairman Andrew S. Grove, who recently invited Barad to give a presentation on branding to his senior executives. Pixar CEO Steven P. Jobs credits her with talking him into releasing Toy Story II in movie theaters instead of taking it straight to video. "She has a gut intuitive feeling...and she trusts those instincts," says Jobs.

But Barad can also be extremely hands-on. In a recent Barbie makeover, for instance, all possible options were presented to her. "In five minutes," says an insider, "Barad flew around the room: `This hair, these legs, this face, these pants, this color."' Barad's style often speeds the process, insiders say, but just as often she is seen as meddlesome. "It is a blatant problem. Why is the chairman looking at every design concept?" says a former executive.

Barad's no-nonsense style has played a role in the recent departures of three top execs of the Barbie brand, including the brand's general manager, Jean McKensie, according to some insiders. "She doesn't always balance her high standards with strokes, rewards, or acknowledgments," says a former senior executive. And some say Barad can be downright rude. One former brand director recalls a meeting in which Barad asked for a glass a water. When a secretary brought some, Barad looked at the glass and snapped: "This better not be tap."

Outside the company, high-ranking women are watching Barad's progress. "It's an unbelievable responsibility to be the one paving the way. A lot of women are rooting for her," says Avon Products Inc. President Andrea Jung, a business partner and friend. "I look at Jill not just as a woman who made it to the top but as a products person who made it to the top." And to those who say Barad is too tough, others caution against applying a double standard to women and men execs. "These people calling her abrasive, have they met Ted Turner? Have they met Michael Eisner?" asks Geraldine Laybourne, president of Disney/ABC Cable Networks. "Compared to most CEOs, she is not abrasive. But maybe compared to their wives she is."

Away from work in her sprawling $4 million, Mediterranean-style Bel Air mansion, Barad looks tanned and rested after a recent spa vacation. Chatting about knocking down the house next door to plant a vegetable patch, Barad reflects on the pros and cons of "having it all." Her success has taken its toll. Her tough schedule has aggravated health problems, and she is so allergic to various foods that trips to the hospital, colleagues say, are not uncommon. Barad winces when she talks about missed birthdays, school plays, and soccer games. Once, she confides, when her second son Justin was small, he told Barad he feared she would never come back from a trip she was about to take. From that point, Barad says, she has never missed a birthday.

AT-HOME DAD. Her career might not have happened at all had she married a more conventional husband. But Tom stepped back from the Hollywood rat race when the boys were young, choosing assignments that didn't require much travel. "He played mom and dad for a long while," says Barad. "He took them to the doctor and for piano lessons." These days, he is working on infomercials and a feature film. Last year, his company pulled in $691,000 from Mattel for a Barbie spot.

Friends say the Barads, who first spotted each other poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel when they were both 26, are ideal complements. Tom is self-deprecating, calm, and reflective. Jill, on the other hand, is "type J," says Tom. She paces when she is talking on the phone and is emotional, intense, and competitive--even while playing Scrabble on vacation. "I don't think I have sat behind my desk for 10 hours in 18 years," says Barad.

She has no regrets about the compromises she has made to balance career and family. "There was no choice," she says. "My kids are the most important thing in my life. I could not imagine life without them. And I also can't imagine my life without work."

Sons Alex, 18, and Justin, 15, have long since learned to take their mom's high-profile job in stride. Alex recently worked at a Blockbuster Video store and plans to go to college in the fall. Justin, who's into computer programming and playing his flute, will do a summer stint at a videogame-software company.

For all the Barads, pop culture is a necessary ingredient of daily living. The whole family reads Teen People magazine. Watching ER and The X-Files are weekly family rituals. "It is the one thing that relaxes Jill," explains Tom, who wishes Jill wouldn't watch so much TV. "She is a Food Channel addict. It is on around the clock." When she travels, Jill leaves CNN on all night.

These days, Barad is busy remodeling. The centerpiece of the eclectic house is a six-foot-tall Barbie statue on the staircase. A painting of the blonde icon by Andy Warhol is in the living room. "To me and the boys, [Barbie] is a symbol of watching Jill grow as a professional woman, watching her prove her creativity," says Tom.

If Barbie is the Barads' symbol of success, then surely Jill Barad herself is an equally powerful icon for corporate women. She broke the glass ceiling--and did it with style and panache. She has thrived in a man's world but isn't afraid to say "I love you" to her staff. In a remarkable career, she has been able to celebrate both her femininity and her ambition. It seems her mother was right: Bumblebees shouldn't be able to fly. But they do. And so does Jill Barad.

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