Toy Story

A business relationship with roots in the chance pairing of two first-year roommates continues to bear fruit for two families.

It’s hard to argue against fate having a hand in this happy tale. Three members of the class of 1995 – already close friends and spouses – now find themselves linked professionally on multiple levels. The common denominator is play.

Ann (Kotur) Kienzle ’95 and Amy (Vrabel) MacLean ’95 grew up almost 2,000 miles apart, in southern Wisconsin and western Washington, respectively. They shared a room in Sensenbrenner Hall their first year at St. Norbert, eventually pursuing vastly different courses of study. 

Little did they know how entwined their lives would remain. Add Amy’s husband, Matt MacLean ’95, and younger brother, Nate Vrabel ’01, to the mix, and this toy story becomes an illustration of how relationships can play major roles in business success.

Kienzle has worked in the toy industry since graduation, traveling extensively for employers and gaining experience that touched on every aspect of the world of toys. However, when she opened her own specialty store, called [play, in the Logan Square neighborhood of northwest Chicago in the summer of 2010, she lacked the art expertise needed to market her new enterprise. There was one obvious choice for the logo and other graphics work she needed: former St. Norbert art majors Amy MacLean and her brother, Nate.

In the meantime, the MacLeans, along with Nate and his wife, Krista, were in the early stages of launching a toy business first proposed by the MacLeans’ young son, Greyson. The idea involves removable, reusable cling decals for plastic brick toys such as Lego. They founded a company called BrickStix and enlisted Kienzle to help them navigate the toy industry they knew nothing about.

“We talked to Ann about BrickStix, and it was her idea to go to the New York Toy Fair in February 2011,” Matt MacLean explains. “Since its debut there, BrickStix have been picked up by stores all over the U.S. and Canada. Safe to say it’s already exceeded our expectations.”

BrickStix has already won five awards, including the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Best Toy Gold Seal, and the MacLeans recently signed an international distribution deal. Greyson MacLean also is heavily involved in the business at the ripe age of 12. He earned the Chicago Toy and Game Group’s 2011 Young Inventor of the Year award and appeared on TBS’s “Conan” in November.

“It has been a crazy year,” Amy MacLean says. “I never imagined doing anything like this. It’s fun, but it’s hard work. We make it up as we go, and so far, so good.”

“It’s a great story,” Kienzle admits. “It definitely is one of those things you never plan on, but it certainly has worked out great.”

Kienzle’s career took a turn toward consulting after she supervised the opening of a retail outlet for a chain of toy stores in California. The experience led to her founding The Toy Business LLC, a boutique consulting firm specializing in the toy and gift industry. It also got her thinking that it might be fun to have a toy store she could call her own.

“That project began with the construction phase and entailed hiring, training, merchandising and buying,” Kienzle says. “It was like earning a master’s degree in the toy industry.”

Her [play store features toys that are relatively rare, environmentally friendly, developmentally sound and safe. It has been an immediate hit, even earning Best New Toy Store honors from Chicago Magazine.

“The consulting business was a starter to the idea of owning my own business,” Kienzle says. “I don’t think you ever truly know how much work it is until you do it. It’s like parenthood,
I think.”