Simplay3’s Tom Murdough is a Toy Industry Legend. He’s Always Kept it Made in America

By Jeffrey Bonior
Nov 10 2022 |
“No question about it that toys are much better quality here in America, and our designers were very aware of it,” said Tom Murdough, founder of toy companies Simplay3, Little Tikes and Step2. “We never veered away from what we do and we’ve gotten even better at what we do. Made in America is the best.” Photos courtesy Simplay3

Murdough, who also founded popular toy companies Little Tikes and Step2, is still going strong at 84 — and still committed to American manufacturing.

Santa Claus and his workshop of toymaking elves have got nothing on Tom Murdough.

Murdough has been manufacturing American-made toys in Ohio for nearly 60 years. At the age of 84, he is still going as strong as jolly old St. Nick.

Murdough is the founder and CEO of Simplay3, which manufactures top-quality, sturdy plastic toys for young children. Simplay3 is one of the Alliance for American Manufacturing’s selections in our upcoming 2022 Made in America Holiday Gift Guide, which will be officially unveiled on Thursday, Nov. 17.

Simplay3 sells about 60 products, including the ever-popular Rock N Roll Teeter and the Young Explorers Adventure Climber. All Simplay3 toys are constructed with polyethylene plastic resin and are manufactured using a process known as rotational molding.

Murdough is a legend in the toy industry. In 2020, he was inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame, joining such luminaries as Milton Bradley, Walt Disney, Jim Henson and Stan Lee. Shortly thereafter, Murdough was inducted into the Rotational Molding (ARM) Hall of Fame for his ingenious manufacturing of plastic toys.

Once you see Murdough’s accomplishments, you know why he’s a Hall of Famer. Murdough launched the Little Tikes toy company in 1969; iconic toys like the Cozy Coupe and Turtle Sandbox hit the market under his watch. Murdough sold the company to Rubbermaid in 1984, only to return to the industry in 1991 to create the also-very-popular Step2 toy company, which he sold to a private equity firm in 2007.

Murdough tried retirement. It didn’t suit him. So, he started another toy company.

And despite suffering a stroke in 2018, Murdough has no plans to abandon the industry that has brought him as much joy as it has to the thousands of children that have enjoyed his American-made products.

“I’m blessed with the companies I’ve created and I miss parts of each one of them,” he said. “But, we are doing just fine here and I look forward to what’s ahead.”

Simplay3 toys are designed to be easy to set up, easy to clean — and fun for kids.

Murdough was born in Oklahoma, but grew up with his two older brothers in Evanston, Ill., before graduating from the University of Virginia. He then spent three years in the Marine Corps and eventually took a job with Wilson Sporting Goods, where he learned about roto-molding plastic machines.

After a few forays into business partnerships in the plastics industry, Murdough launched Little Tikes in Solon, Ohio. With supply chain logistics favorable in Ohio, Little Tikes continued to grow, producing some of the most iconic products in toymaking history.

“I was in my 20s when I started in the toy industry, and we hang our hat on the quality Made in America products as to the poor quality of China-made toys,” said Murdough, from his office at Simplay3 headquarters in Streetsboro, Ohio. “I have absolutely made a commitment to make our products in America and am proud of it. I am fascinated with children and their toys. They keep me young.”

In 1979, Little Tikes launched the Cozy Coupe and Turtle Sandbox, which are still regarded today as groundbreaking toy products. These outdoor products helped create a year-round toy industry that had been for the most part a seasonal endeavor focused on Christmas.

In 1982, Murdough began manufacturing the little Cozy Coupe, a bubble-shaped, foot powered car that came complete with a roof and a steering wheel that made it swivel.

By 1991, the Cozy Coupe was known as the best-selling “car” in America, selling more than 500,000 units per year, surpassing the popular Ford Taurus and Honda Accord. Little Tikes estimates it has now sold more than 10 million Cozy Coupes globally.

Brian McDonald is the Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Simplay3 and has been an essential part of Murdough’s team for more than 20 years.

“Really, a lot of the iconic products that are still out there on the market, like Turtle Sandbox, Party Kitchen or Cozy Coupe all originated during Tom’s time, and they’ve lived a long life,” McDonald said. “These were definitely iconic products in the toy industry and were the reason Tom got elected into the Toy Hall of Fame.”

Murdough’s success with Little Tikes did not discourage his love of toymaking and the rotational molding process, so when he sold Little Tikes to Rubbermaid Inc. in 1984 for $50 million, he eventually returned to the industry in 1991 to start the Step2 Company.

Step2 got off the ground in 1991 with sales of approximately $500,000, but by its second year, Step2 sales had grown to $17 million, and the company employed nearly 800 workers in Streetsboro, Ohio. It was described as the largest American manufacturer of pre-school and toddler toys and the world’s largest rotational molder of plastics.

“I didn’t consider making toys when I went into it, it was rotational molding that intrigued me,” Murdough recalled. “It came from the first place I worked, Wilson Sporting Goods, and we bought one of the rotational molding machines and I liked what I saw. The cost of the machines was considerably less  than buying injection molding machines and it was the way everybody was going.”

But after several successful years leading Step2, Murdough saw the landscape change as most toy manufacturers were moving their production to China to increase profit margin.

“I remember when all these guys were going to China and I said what are you going to China for?,” said Murdough. “They all had the same story. They didn’t have to employ U.S. workers and pay them well.

“I was tempted at the time, but I didn’t do it because I believed in the great work the American worker could do and I also anticipated the time and money was going to be a disaster for our company. And sure enough, it is a disaster.

“No question about it that toys are much better quality here in America, and our designers were very aware of it. We never veered away from what we do and we’ve gotten even better at what we do. Made in America is the best.”

In 2007, at the age of 68, Murdough sold Step2 to a private equity firm for $180 million. He tried retirement enjoying the families of his four sons and his 16 grandchildren until 2016, when he decided to get back in the game of children’s toys and rotational molding of plastics.

At the age of 78, he launched Simplay3 toy company, making exquisite plastic toys in the same small town of Streetsboro where he had previously guided Step2.

Simplay3 manufactures about 60 products, 20 of which fall under the classification of American Home, which features items such as free-standing mailboxes that are sold at Home Depot and Lowes.

Among the approximately 40 toys manufactured by Simplay3’s staff of 100 employees are newer popular items such as the Carry and Go Racetrack Toy Car and Train Table and the Fast Track Downhill Raceway (pictured below).

“The roadway is on one side and the railway is on the other side and kids use their Thomas trains, their Hot Wheels or their Matchbox cars and they play over this tracking,” McDonald said. “The beauty of it is that usually the parents have to set it up and they always fall apart as soon as the kids start playing. This toy can be played with right away without having to put it together and the kids can play as rough as they want. It’s sturdy, so you can take it outdoors where it can get muddy or you can take it to the beach where it can get sandy. Your just rinse it off with a hose and bring it inside. It’s clean and very versatile.

“This is the way Tom has designed so many of his toys. It is no coincidence that the three companies that sell this type of product were all started by Tom, and his team so there really hasn’t been anybody else that has jumped into this category. Tom has really dominated this space.

“As parents, you want your kids outside playing and active and there are secondary benefits to the socialization of a child, being with other kids, playing and cooperating and communicating and using their imaginations. These are all things that are not only are a fun pastime for the children but it very important for their development.”

Murdough can be found most weekdays at the Simplay3 headquarters, working on new ideas and walking the factory floor talking with employees. He has certainly cut down on his work hours but devotes much of his free time to his philanthropic endeavors such as the Murdough Foundation, which benefits more than 200 organizations.

Murdough and his wife Joy are also staunch supporters of the Akron’s Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Hospital at the University of Virginia, and have been instrumental in two local Ohio high schools building football and athletic facilities.

Murdough is truly a kid at heart. He was exuberant about a new product that Simplay3 was going to put into production, when most people his age would prefer to be sitting on the beach in Florida.

“Just this morning, I saw we’re making a new product, which was going to be a playhouse that is a good size product,” Murdough said. “They designers and mold-makers really did a great job on it. It’s unique and sells at a price that is so great, because the kids can do so many things with it.”

All Simplay3 products are 100 percent recyclable and Made in Ohio with American plastics.

“That was a competitive advantage for us because when Tom founded the company, he didn’t want to rely on having to place large orders for components from China,” McDonald said. “So we definitely found suppliers that were local or U.S. based and during the supply chain issue we rode right through it without a problem where others couldn’t because they had supplies that were on a boat somewhere off the West Coast.”

Always the optimist and humble about his legendary toymaking status, Murdough knows that bringing a smile to children’s faces will keep a smile on his as well.

“It’s been a labor of love and what we do is all Made in America, which is unique in itself for a toy company,” Murdough said.

There is no telling how many millions of American-made toys Murdough has manufactured and sold. It won’t be Tom Murdough coming down the chimney with a bag of toys on Christmas morning, but don’t be surprised if Santa Claus makes a stop at Simplay3 in Ohio to refill his bag of goodies for America’s children.

Simplay3 toys are available on the company’s website and are also sold by retailers like Amazon, Target and Walmart, as well as many independent retailers of toy products.