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When Robert Pasin ’97 joined Radio Flyer in the mid-90s, he discovered that the brand had been operating much the same way since its genesis in 1917.
“We weren’t a consumer-facing, feedback-seeking company,” he reflects. “We were a fairly inwardly focused manufacturer. And actually there had been nothing wrong with that for 70 years, but things were changing with consumers’ tastes and preferences.”
Pasin was alarmed to discover that the classic red wagon that made Radio Flyer an icon of the 20th century was struggling to hold up against sales of more popular plastic wagons made by competitors. He was keenly aware of the brand’s nostalgia factor, since he himself was the grandson of Antonio Pasin, the Italian carpenter who founded the company. So he shifted to a consumer-friendly approach and began asking questions that sometimes struck a sentimental chord, such as asking parents which Radio Flyer products they had as children.
“[Parents] would often talk about having a Radio Flyer tricycle. They would describe it as red and shiny with a big bell , chrome handlebars and rubber tires,” Pasin recalls. “We thought that was crazy because we never made tricycles!”
For Pasin this confirmed Radio Flyer’s strength as a brand and he ran with those design cues to create the tricycle so many customers had fondly recalled. The resulting retro-style steel tricycle became a bestseller and skyrocketed Radio Flyer to the market share leader in the category.
“It opened a whole new category of business for us that’s a big part of our business today,” he says.
It also helped that Pasin was attending the Kellogg School of Management just as he began running Radio Flyer.
“The time I was going to Kellogg was one of the most challenging times in the business,” he says. “It was stressful, but for me it was incredible because for two nights a week I could go to class, think and be exposed to different ideas that were energizing. It recharged my batteries. Kellogg did a really good job of helping me learn to be a better critical thinker and to reduce complicated problems down to the elemental facts.”
After achieving the number-one market position in tricycles, Pasin’s team began researching other potential categories they could enter and found that toy cars (or “battery-operated ride-ons” as they are officially called) could be the perfect venture. Through research, Radio Flyer learned that kids loved their toy cars but the batteries were often dead, causing frustration.
“We figured we could solve that problem if we used lithium-ion batteries instead of the traditional lead-acid batteries,” he says. “The challenge was the lithium-ion batteries were far more expensive.”
The solution was to approach electronic automotive company Tesla. The outcome was the Tesla Model S for Kids, which is customized exactly like a full-sized Tesla and has been a huge sales and public relations success.
Since Pasin took the helm, Radio Flyer’s sales have grown by more than five times. The company has received numerous awards as a top workplace, including "#1 Workplace in the U.S." by Fortune magazine.
Looking ahead, Pasin is excited to steer the company his grandfather created into a second century of innovation.
“The ongoing challenge is there’s always an inherent tension in our brand between nostalgia and the latest, coolest thing,” says Pasin. “When I first started I had a negative view of nostalgia partly because I was really paranoid about becoming a relic. But, I’ve come to learn that the nostalgic part of our brand is really powerful and we just need to do a really good job of staying true to our brand’s essence while staying current to what consumers want and need today.”