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One Man's Tiny Plastic Universe

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Plastic is made from oil. So when oil suddenly got more expensive, so did the plastic pellets Beck's company needed to make toys. Now it had to do more with the plastic it bought. Instead of making, say, a plastic beach bucket, it made sense to use that plastic to make something with more to it: a collection of Playmobil figures, for instance.

Toy figures would cost more than a bucket, but kids could do a lot more with them, and parents would feel they were getting more for their money. The company, of course, would be happy with more money.

But when Playmobil figures were shown to toy wholesalers (they sell toys to toy stores), not everyone liked them.

"People didn't realize how much you could do with them," Beck says. But a Dutch firm agreed to buy a whole year's production! The rest is history.

Keeping toy secrets safe

Today, Playmobil's offices are outside of Zirndorf, near Nuremberg, Germany, a city that has been important in the toy business for hundreds of years. Beck's office has lots of windows that overlook the pretty countryside. There's also a place where children can play with almost all the Playmobil figures there are.

The office has a special "inner sanctum." You can't get in without a special card to open the door. That's so the toys they're working on will stay secret.

By now, so many Playmobil figures have been produced that, if they were real people and had their own country, it would be the most populous nation on earth: 1.3 billion!

Today's Playmobil figures look pretty much as they did in the beginning. The first year the company had three "themes": medieval knights, construction workers, and American Indians. Beck's favorite is the pirate ship, introduced in 1978.

Now there's a Playmobil train that includes a car sprayed with graffiti and a "street action" collection showing a racially mixed group of kids playing basketball.

It's clear from the letters kids send to Playmobil that a lot of them think of themselves as part owners of the company. They have lots of ideas. The letters (many with drawings) are carefully logged, answered, and filed. Ideas are tallied so that the firm can tell how many letter-writers asked for Playmobil cavemen this year, for instance.

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