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Volume 41. No. 2.
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For entrepreneur Michael Cookson ’78, the thrills of childhood have become a life’s work.

Toys

Story by Mark Kendall

In the movie Big, Tom Hanks plays a boy who winds up in a grown man's body, goes on a series of adventures in the city and lands a job with a toy company. The most memorable scene shows Hanks exuberantly tapping out "Heart and Soul" on a giant floor keyboard in an FAO Schwarz store.

Michael Cookson '78 insisted that his future wife Darcie Lamond see this movie before they married 12 years ago. He wanted her to know what she was getting into.

Cookson taps to his own tune, moving from business concept to concept with a mix of idealism and entrepreneurial energy. He started off in politics, shifted into corporate finance, then found his niche with sports and toy businesses. Along the way, he took on Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Barbie. These days, he has a hand in marketing everything from Star Wars lightsabers to margarita mix.

Stir all his ventures together and you've got quite a cocktail. "I'm kind of a serial entrepreneur," he says.

But if his interests seem eclectic, there is a unifying factor. "It has to be something that I feel passionate about, I believe in," says Cookson, who lives in the Bay Area. "I believe in having fun. I couldn't sell widgets."

His entrepreneurial efforts started early. As a fifth-grader he landed the newspaper concession for some campgrounds in Pinecrest, Calif. near Yosemite. He'd buy the papers for 7 cents, pay his workers 3 cents per paper for delivering them and charge 15 cents. His profit for the summer was a cool $450.

Cookson saved up enough money from working to finance his own trip back East to see such historic cities as Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Politics pulled him in for a time. Cookson was class president in junior high and at San Mateo High School, and as a government major at Pomona he spent a semester in Washington, D.C. After Pomona, Cookson was unsure about his career direction.

So he joined up with another Pomona alumnus, Derek Lemke-von Ammon '78, working for the presidential campaign of John Anderson, a moderate Republican turned independent.
Cookson became finance director for the campaign, though he had only taken one math class at Pomona. Anderson wound up with nearly seven percent of the vote, not a bad feat for an independent candidate battling for attention in the two-party system. Still, Cookson wound up turned off by the system. "Politics was too frustrating," he says, citing the influence of money. "Our process does not work.''

Cookson found his way into the world of corporate finance, working for major companies such as Raychem. Though he lacked experience in the field, his broad liberal arts education had taught him how to learn and he picked up the ways of the finance world. But he also learned something about himself. "I realized I really wasn't a finance person by nature," says Cookson. "Your 20s are really the time to go explore a lot of things and … learn what you don't want to do."

At 30, he attended Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, where he earned an MSB degree. Then Cookson was ready to venture out on his own.

He wanted to start his own company, but he knew it had to fit his personality. So he drew on his love of sports. Cookson had played golf, soccer and tennis at Pomona, and he taught kids in athletics programs during three summers of his college years.

Aviva Sports was born. The company focused on creating systems for kids to learn how to play noncompetitive sports they could keep at for a lifetime. Aviva grew to $40 million in annual sales before Cookson sold it to Mattel in 1991.

After taking a year-long sabbatical with the arrival of his first child, Cookson was back developing another toy concept with a unique mission. Wild Planet Toys' goal was to make science and nature "cool and hip" for kids.

"I am a chronic start-up person," he says. "There's an adrenaline rush and passion needed and drive required to make small companies get a hold in the marketplace. And that's what I love."

Then came what Cookson calls "my spectacular failure." SportsLab was a sort of athletic Cirque de Soleil, a traveling sports theme park offering everything from rock climbing to simulated bobsled rides to sports clinics for kids. The idea was to encourage participation in sports. But the project ran out of cash and shut down in 1996.

Cookson soon signed on as turnaround CEO for Wham-O, the toy brand for a slew of fun products ranging from Hula Hoops to Hacky Sacks to Boogie Boards. Under his leadership, sales shot from $20 million to $65 million.

Next he went to battle with Barbie. In 2002, Cookson co-founded Get Real Girls, a start-up introducing a line of dolls meant to be "the antithesis of Barbie." These girls have normal bodies and pursue sports and travel adventures. The line-up generated plenty of positive press and even was featured on "Oprah." But alas, Barbie proved too much of a dominant force in the doll market.

"We just couldn't break through," says Cookson. "There are a lot of great product ideas and some of them don't break through for whatever reason."

Win some, lose some, Cookson keeps at it – and keeps having fun. "Everyone has a different level or appetite for risk," he says. "And mine is very high."

Today Cookson is running Master Replicas, a Walnut Creek-based company that sells high-end collectibles for hardcore fans of "Star Wars," "Star Trek," "Lord of the Rings" and other popular film franchises. These aren't tacky trinkets. The company sells $119 Luke Skywalker Lightsabers, complete with glowing blue blade and sounds effects, and $499 "Star Trek" prop replica phasers autographed by Leonard Nimoy (those sold out).

Now throw margaritas into the mix. One of Cookson's favorite eateries is Tommy's Mexican Restaurant, a San Francisco institution that has been at the center of the trend toward serving high-quality tequila drinks. He got the notion to market a fresh, high quality margarita mix that was worthy of those fancy tequilas.

What makes Tommy's Margarita Mix different is that it's fresh – no preservatives – and sold in the refrigerated section of many Bay Area markets. It's coming soon to Southern California.
Cookson considers Pomona College a key ingredient in his success. "It taught me how to think,'' he said. "It taught me to be well-rounded. It taught me to appreciate a lot of different strengths in people."

But he doesn't see himself as some sort of exceptional visionary. A lot of people have ideas, he says. The only difference is he's willing to take the risk of acting on his. He still keeps the list of values he and employees came up with when he started Aviva, his first company. They include "Dare to be who you are!" and "Recognize and reward creativity, innovation and risk-taking and embrace and learn from your mistakes."

Sometimes people come to him with an idea and want help making it happen. In recent years, Cookson also has started financing some companies. But he isn't a passive investor; he always takes a role in operating companies he invests in.

Cookson isn't all business. He enjoys competing in Iron Man triathlons, combining running, biking and swimming. He's moving out of hustle-bustle San Francisco to a sizeable spread of land in the wine country town of Healdsburg (pop. 11,600), 60 miles north of the city. He and Darcie wanted their boys Jack, 12, and Kyle, 4, to have a more unstructured, playful life.
While Cookson currently is running Master Replicas, in other cases he is less involved in the day-to-day operations of companies he works with. "The life of an entrepreneur is like a light switch," he says. "It's either on or off."

Still, you get the sense that most of the time the light bulb in Cookson's brain is burning bright. He reports that his wife Darcie likes to ask him: "How do I turn you off?"
 

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