Chairman of the board, president, and chief executive officer, Toys "R" Us
Born: 1948, in Seattle, Washington.
Education: University of Washington, BS, 1969; Harvard University School of Business, MBA, 1971.
Family: Son of John Sr. (engineer) and Ell Dora (nurse and homemaker); married Dolores (journalist); children: three.
Career: May Department Stores, 1980–?, chief executive officer of May D&F division; Federated Department Stores, dates unknown, chairman and chief executive officer of MainStreet division; Hartmarx Corporation, ?–1992, chief executive officer of retail subsidiaries; FAO Schwarz, 1992–2000, chairman and chief executive officer; Toys "R" Us, 2000–, president and chief executive officer; 2001–, chairman of the board.
Address: Toys "R" Us, 1 Geoffrey Way, Wayne, New Jersey 07470-2030; http://www.toysrus.com/.
■ John H. Eyler Jr. quickly made Toys "R" Us a friendlier and more accessible store for consumers—after the longtime model for toy retailers had settled near the bottom in customer-service rankings. As chairman of the board, president, and chief executive officer of one of the world's largest toy retail chains, Eyler oversaw more than 1,500 Toys "R" Us stores in the United States and abroad. He also guided the company's Web sites (run by Amazon.com) toward a new look and feel.
Before joining Toys "R" Us in January 2000, Eyler served as chairman and chief executive officer of FAO Schwarz. He began building his retail merchandising career with the May Department Stores Company, becoming chief executive officer of its May D&F division at age 32. Later he was chairman and chief executive officer of Federated Department Stores' MainStreet division and then chief Executive Officer Of Hartmarx's retail subsidiary before moving to FAO Schwarz in 1992. He also served as a director of Donna Karan International.
Eyler was born in Seattle and grew up on nearby Mercer Island. His father, an engineer for Boeing, played significant roles in the Apollo 11 space mission and the Minuteman missile program. The younger Eyler attended the University of Washington as a finance major and later received an MBA from Harvard University. While writing a paper about eliminating middlemen from the distribution process, he discovered his interest in retailing. Specifically, he became aware that the computer revolution would allow for measurement of the effectiveness of each link in the retail chain and could lead to consolidation. Realizing that this effect would spark opportunities for young executives, after graduation he decided to try his hand as a trainee in management with May Department Stores. Although it seemed a natural course for a young businessman, the move was well thought out and not a coincidence.
Eyler's early career had both high and low points. Among his best-known accomplishments was beginning MainStreet, a chain of lower-priced stores for Federated Department Stores. According to Eyler, MainStreet was on an annual pace of $300 million in sales in 1988 and just about to become profitable when Federated's new owner, Robert Campeau, sold the chain to reduce debt. Following that, Eyler switched gears and oversaw the retail arm of Hartmarx, an upscale suitmaker. Unfortunately, after the market shifted toward the office-casual style, the stores were eventually closed. Forever the optimist, Eyler believed that this experience of failure enabled him to excel in future undertakings because it made his assessment of reality more acute. In 1992 he signed on as CEO at FAO Schwarz, where he made his name by emphasizing attractions such as in-store toy demonstrations and products such as Schwarz-only giant stuffed animals.
In 1948 Charles Lazarus, only 25 years old and just finished with a tour of duty in the U.S. Army, founded the company that would become Toys "R" Us. Lazarus is credited with introducing "toy supermarkets" in approximately 1952. The new concept in toy retail quickly caught on. In 1957 Lazarus renamed his company Toys "R" Us. It grew steadily through the 1980s. In 1994 Lazarus retired and Michael Goldstein succeeded him as CEO of Toys "R" Us. Over the following few years, major retailers and online toy sellers like Target and Wal-Mart started to challenge the Toys "R" Us empire. Along with this new threat, the company weathered several years of down holiday sales, which contributed to a growing negative reputation for missing the boat on profit opportunities.
In 1998 Goldstein resigned after Wal-Mart surpassed Toys "R" Us as the largest toy retailer in the United States. The next CEO, Robert Nakasone, served only 18 months before being replaced by Eyler. The Toys "R" Us board was looking for a long-term solution and had talked with Eyler on and off for more than a decade. Nakasone had tried to recruit Eyler to be his No. 2 in 1998 and even negotiated to purchase Schwarz to get him. After Nakasone's departure, Eyler was still at the head of the candidate list because of his glowing reviews from key suppliers such as CEOs Alan G. Hassenfeld of Hasbro and Jill Barad of Mattel. Expectations were high, and Eyler didn't disappoint. After a long string of earnings disappointments and management turmoil, Eyler came on board noting that customer service, store appearance, and merchandise appeal were the most critical points to address at Toys "R" Us. This was not surprising after coming from upscale toy vendor FAO Schwarz, where image was everything. His idea was to utilize some of the magic that was a mainstay at FAO Schwarz but at a price level that was appropriate for Toys "R" Us. Up to this point, shopping at these two stores was like night and day. Schwarz was like shopping in heaven with toy demonstrations for the parents, play areas for the kids, and specialty items unavailable anywhere else. Toys "R" Us, on the other hand, had a negative persona brought on by its warehouse style and poor treatment of customers, who often had to negotiate tall shelves and wrestle cumbersome boxes to get to the toy they sought.
Toys "R" Us opened its flagship store, in New York City's Times Square, in November 2001. The massive, dazzling new store was considered to be among Eyler's most notable accomplishments as CEO. It featured such attractions as an indoor Ferris wheel able to take 600 people a day for a spin, a life-size two-story Barbie townhouse with its own elevator, a 30-foot-tall animatronic dinosaur, and a version of the Candy Land board game big enough to double as a candy store. Although some insiders criticized the spectacle's $35 million cost, Eyler felt that the money was well spent, given that an average of 1.5 million people make their way through Times Square every day of the year. He also saw the flagship store as a key part of the critical task of changing the company's image. He had already initiated sweeping revisions in many existing Toys "R" Us stores. In addition to providing a better toy selection, he introduced many new toys that were available only from Toys "R" Us. He remodeled the stores' physical layout, adding toydemonstration areas and placing toy displays in cul-de-sac sections instead of relying on the old warehouse-length aisles. The changes affected 167 stores in 2000 and 308 more in 2001.
Eyler was also credited with upgrading the Toys "R" Us employee areas, which reportedly improved morale. The happier employees got new bright-red uniforms and were much more willing to provide friendly service to their customers. With Eyler's presence and influence, the days of unhelpful sales clerks and Christmas-eve exasperation were over.
In the early 2000s Toys "R" Us continued to be a leading retailer of toys, children's apparel, and baby products in stores and through its Web sites. As of February 1, 2003, the company operated 1,595 retail stores worldwide. Its 1,051 U.S. locations included 681 toy stores under the name Toys "R" Us, 183 infant-toddler stores under the name Babies "R" Us, 146 children's clothing stores under the name Kids "R" Us, 37 educational specialty stores under the name Imaginarium, and four Geoffrey stores that offered products from Toys "R" Us, Babies "R" Us, and Kids "R" Us. The company also sold merchandise through its Web sites at www.toysrus.com, www.babiesrus.com, www.imaginarium.com, and www.giftsrus.com.
Coworkers and analysts described Eyler as an innovative and passionate marketer with entrepreneurial leadership and the energy needed for the toy market. The asset of having been a chief executive officer at several companies in various environments made him a leading candidate for Toys "R" Us. When he came to their table, he brought a reputation for commitment to customer focus, existing toy industry relationships, and experience heading up profitable electronic commerce and catalog businesses. Eyler's critics noted that during his career he had not led any major turnarounds and had never displayed great numbers. For example, while he was at FAO Schwarz, sales grew from $60 million in 1991 to $225 million in 1999, but profits were meager. Industry colleagues and press stories about Eyler seemed to agree, however, that if he had suffered some failures, they had only made him a better retailer.
See also entry on Toys 'R' Us, Inc. in International Directory of Company Histories .
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——, "TRU's Eyler Touts Sound Growth Plan," DSN Retailing Today , June 18, 2001, p. 3.
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