Earning a fortune by selling the planet's dominant computer operating system or owning a worldwide chain of superstores are impressive feats. But try to build a $6 billion nest egg by peddling cutesy-named, cuddly beanbag toys. Now that's impressive. And it's just what Ty Warner did as founder of Ty Inc., the firm behind Beanie Babies. Warner, whose office would say only that he is in his "late 50s," began selling the plush creatures in 1993. By 1999, sales at the Westmont, Ill., firm had hit nearly $1.3 billion, as Beanies became white-hot collector items (partly thanks to Warner's limiting supply and sales outlets). Some Beanies sold for thousands of dollars on the secondary market.
The public's frenzied enthusiasm for Beanies peaked right along with Internet stocks and then similarly plunged. "You had people going out and buying in volume," says industry analyst Chris "the Toy Guy" Byrne. "Then it really cooled off." Perhaps the craze suffered from the general cooling of exuberant spirits that accompanied the bear market in stocks. Or perhaps it was Warner's embarrassingly obvious marketing ploy: In 1999, he said he was retiring Beanies at the end of the year--and then changed his mind after thousands of collectors voted to "save the Beanies."
Sales have been flat the past couple of years. Still, $750 million a year in sales is pretty good and generates more than enough dough to fund Warner's other thriving business: real estate. In 1999, he bought New York's Four Seasons Hotel, followed by the 2000 purchases of the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara, Calif., and the nearby San Ysidro Ranch, where JFK and Jackie honeymooned. Then last summer, Warner bought the neighboring Sandpiper Golf Course.
Other than his real-estate megadeals, Warner keeps a low profile and shuns the media (he refused requests for an interview). He rarely makes news, other than the occasional charitable donation and a dispute with his hometown about a driveway gate he wanted at his residence. Last fall, Oak Brook, Ill., approved the gate because of the privacy demands of Warner's celebrity. "Maybe he doesn't need the spotlight," says Byrne. "And it only adds to his and his products' mystique." -James M. Pethokoukis
This story appears in the February 16, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.