The King of KenKen
Chappaqua resident Robert Fuhrer opens up about his surprising life in the toy industry
Did you ever play Milton Bradley’s Gator Golf or Crocodile Dentist, either growing up or with your kids? If so, you can thank Chappaqua toy entrepreneur Robert Fuhrer and his company, Nextoy, for your hours of enjoyment. How about the grid-based math puzzle sensation called KenKen, which appears daily in the New York Times and is featured in more than 200 publications worldwide? You can credit Fuhrer for that, too, as he’s the one who discovered KenKen in Japan and brought it to the US before exporting it around the globe.
An Ardsley native and 24-year resident of Chappaqua, Fuhrer, 61, has been involved in the toy business practically his entire life. In fact, you could say it runs in his blood. Fuhrer’s father was in the industry, working in executive positions at such companies as Matchbox and Topper Toys. From a young age, Fuhrer remembers talking shop with his dad and coming up with ideas for new toys. “I was always drawing concepts for toy guns and spy gear, like attaché cases,” recalls Fuhrer.
One day, when Fuhrer was in his mid-teens, his father told him that a company he’d worked for, Estes Industries, had a line of model rockets and was trying to appeal to younger audiences. He asked his son if he had any ideas, which spurred the younger Fuhrer’s first successful product concept. Called the Missile Toe, it was a toy projectile that looked like a human toe. The company loved the idea, and it went into production.
Following his graduation from Syracuse University, in 1977, Fuhrer started working at an international product licensing agency for the toy-and-game market. At the young age of 22, he was the product manager for Othello, an extremely popular strategy board game.
Fuhrer says it was an incredible learning experience. “As the point person for Othello, which came from Japan, I was involved in conversations with the Japanese and learned all about their culture, and that really defined my career,” he shares.
After four years, Fuhrer decided to strike out on his own. He set up R.B. Fuhrer Enterprises (renamed Nextoy in 1996) in a small office inside the Toy Center, which is located near the Flatiron Building in Manhattan. His first break came in 1981, when he was introduced to the late Tak Shimakata, a Japanese executive at Asahi Corp. who would become Fuhrer’s mentor. Fuhrer was able to make a deal for one of Asahi’s toy cars to be produced and marketed in the US.
His first major hit working with Asahi was the line of skill and action games called T.H.I.N.G.S. (an acronym for Totally Hilarious, Incredibly Neat Games of Skill) marketed through Milton Bradley. They had a string of hits that began in the mid-’80s, including Bongo Kongo, Fishin’ Around, Crocodile Dentist, and Gator Golf.
As his success in the toy industry grew, so did Fuhrer’s family. In 1984, Fuhrer met his future wife, Judy, a Chicago native who had come to New York City on a dance scholarship from Alvin Ailey (she now teaches yoga and religious school). As there always seems to be humor and game-play involved in their lives together, it was fitting that the night they met, the two ended up spending much of the evening talking and playing ping-pong.
The couple were married in 1987, and their first son, Sam, was born in 1991, followed by their son Alex in 1993 and daughter Lara in 1996. Growing up, the family spent a lot of time playing the games Fuhrer produced. Today, Sam is a singer-songwriter who sells stand-up desks, Alex has launched a music school, and Lara is in school pursuing a career as a nutritionist.
Fuhrer ended up working with Asahi (which had become Asahi/CCP via a Casio merge) for 27 years, often traveling to Japan four to five times a year. In 2004, with the toy business facing a bit of uncertainty, he moved out of the Toy Center and worked temporarily from home until setting up an office in Pleasantville.
And then came KenKen. The puzzle was invented in 2004 in Japan by a teacher who had been using it in the classroom as a tool to help improve his students’ math and logic skills. (The original Japanese name is the Kashikoku NaruPuzzle, which means “a puzzle that makes you smarter.”) A Japanese book publisher soon discovered the puzzle and it was quick to gain success in that country, selling more than 1.3 million books in 10 months after it was launched in 2006. Fuhrer was introduced to KenKen the following year, by a business colleague in Japan who was trying to figure out how to market the puzzle worldwide. It wasn’t love at first sight.
“It looked very hard and visually intimidating,” says Fuhrer. “Honestly, my eyes glazed over. The funny thing is, it’s so easy and addicting once you learn the system.”
Fuhrer recalls a repartee with his colleague, who kept insisting how amazing the puzzle was. “I said, ‘This could be the greatest product in the world, but nobody’s ever heard about it, and it doesn’t mean anything if no one knows about it.’ Then he said, ‘How do people hear about it?’ and I replied, ‘It has to be in the newspaper!’”
With that, the idea to approach Will Shortz popped into Fuhrer’s mind. A colleague of his made the introduction to the famed New York Times crossword puzzle editor, and the rest is history. “People pitch me on new puzzles all the time. Most of them aren’t very good. When Bob first phoned me, I agreed to meet with him only because he lives practically around the corner—he’s in Chappaqua, and I’m in Pleasantville—and he agreed to take no more than 10 minutes of my time. But once he came to my house and let me try a KenKen, he didn’t have to sell me. I was hooked from the start,” says Shortz.
KenKen first appeared in The Times (UK) and then Reader’s Digest before making it to the online version of the New York Times in late 2008, landing in the print edition as of February 2009. Now, KenKen is everywhere. It can be played via computer, mobile device, book, newspaper, magazine, or printout. And it appeals to a wide age range, showing up in elementary-school classrooms, as well as the AARP Bulletin. KenKen tournaments are held worldwide, from locally at the Chappaqua Library to as far away as the Razavi Korasan Province of Iran. At the moment, 300,000 KenKen puzzles are played each day on the website and app.
So, just what does someone whose work is all about play do in his free time? An avid golfer, Fuhrer spends many of his weekends on the fairways of Mount Kisco Country Club. He’s also a pitcher on a New Castle men’s softball league team and can frequently be found playing ping-pong at Shortz’s Westchester Table Tennis Center in Pleasantville.
A charitable man at heart, Fuhrer is on the board of Evan’s Team, a nonprofit committed to combatting distracted driving, which was created in memory of his friend’s late son. He also served on the Make-A-Wish Hudson Valley Board from 2006 to 2012. “What I loved about Make-A-Wish was that it’s a charity focused on kids, and we can dedicate funds toward the wish of a particular child with a life-threating illness,” he says.
When asked what’s next, Fuhrer says he’s involved in a new generation of products called “Toys to Life.” The category refers to a genre of videogames using physical action figure toys to interact within the game. Fuhrer says what intrigues him are ideas that incorporate new technology and media platforms mixed with more traditional toys and games.
“It’s all about combining them in a clever fashion that creates more play value and a richer experience,” he says. “For instance, you can use the cell phone as a tool because it has so much capability—lights, sounds, Bluetooth—and with all these elements, you can create a new breed of toy.”
Laura Joseph Mogil is a freelance writer and publicist residing in Briarcliff Manor. She is a frequent contributor to Westchester Magazine and Westchester Home and has written for the New York Times and Hudson Valley Magazine. You can read her food blog at www.inspiredchef.net.