Lea Culliton - Kickstarting the New North East Toy Show (NETS)

by North East Toy Show | 26 Feb 2023

Biographies and Interviews


What are your roles and responsibilities in our industry?


After only seven months of retirement Christine and Alan Blumberg have recruited me to help them kickstart the new North East Toy Show (NETS).  For over 20 years, I oversaw the HABA USA division of the German based, family owned and operated Habermaass GmbH. 


Why and how did you get into the Toy and Game industry?


It’s quite a fun story; prior to working for HABA I was working for a company called Gressco Ltd.  Gressco primarily built furniture for both school and public libraries.  At the time Gressco was owned by a gentleman named Patrick Gresswell who resided in the UK.  At Gressco I wanted to expand into more children’s furniture to make libraries a fun place for children and families to visit.  Patrick flew the president, Bob Childers, and me to Europe (my first trip overseas) to visit several furniture manufacturers in both France and Germany.  That’s when we found HABA in the little town of Bad Rodach, Germany!   Gressco then became the exclusive importer/distributor of the HABA early childhood furniture; they still retain that agreement today! This was in the late 1990’s so I was calling on Beckley Cardy, JL Hammett, Highsmith, etc. Unfortunately, we all know how that turned out.


In 1970’s Habermaass purchased a toy maker, Skaneateles Handicrafters, based in upstate New York.  They renamed the company TC Timber but primarily let TC Timber continue to produce their own wooden toys.  In 2001 the Habermaass company started the process of shutting down TC Timber.  They sold all the wooden machinery, saws, paint tumblers etc.  and were trying to decide what the future looked like.  At the time I was considering a job change from Gressco so I was delighted with the Export Manager of HABA phoned me.  After some discussion we decided to give it a go for a year; I became a toy consultant/contractor to HABA.  I hit the road and spoke to the sales representatives and the retailers.  I learned everything that TC Timber was doing right and more importantly learned what changes I could make to improve.  One of the first changes I made was to create the HABA USA brand in the USA, we converted the Skaneateles operation into a fulfillment center. We began to import all HABA toys and gifts (over 2,000 skus at the time) including categories such as wooden jewelry, purses, backpacks, and even stationery, gift sets etc.  Of course, this was all pre CPSIA so we didn’t have to test as often. 


In preparation for my retirement in June 2022, HABA tapped Willie Wilkov as the new CEO and Cynthia Waruszewski as the Head of Sales & Marketing.  


What has motivated you to return in the toy industry?


I’ve always had a massive amount of respect for the independent sales representatives in our industry.  They are out in the market talking to the customers, seeing their stores, attending trade shows, listening to multiple sales presentations, new product presentations from brands every single day.  In my opinion the sales reps are one of the most knowledgeable and important pieces to the success of the specialty toy industry.  I was fortunate in the fact that I really didn’t have to make many changes to our rep groups so obviously many of these principal reps have become like family to me.  They mentored me when I was new to the industry and continued to support throughout my career.


Recently Alan & Christine Blumberg called me to network and that’s when they shared their customer feedback and concept of how to fix “the hole” in the winter tradeshow market for the North East/Mid Atlantic territory.   I really believed they were onto something and got excited talking to them about it.  A few more phone calls and anxious excitement on my behalf and Voila, they pulled me out of retirement. 


What are you working on now?


I love working with creative, entrepreneurial personalities and that’s what you get with the Blumbergs.  By taking on the role of Director of the NETS Trade Show, this allows Christine & Alan to step back and concentrate on their sales business. 


What has been your biggest achievement?


I’m very proud that I chose for HABA to really dive into the board game industry in the USA when I did.  I’ll never forget my first time exhibiting at Gen Con.  I had NO idea of what I was doing; didn’t know the gaming lingo, didn’t know that they speak in MSRP’s vs. Wholesale prices.  I was literally mobbed by consumers in my little 10 x 10 tradeshow booth.  I remember having to FEDEX more games in for the weekend days.  Families already knew HABA and told me that they could never find the games.  My reaction was why?  The games are easily found in your local toy store!  But what I didn’t realize is that the true gamers shop for their games at their local FLGS (Friendly Local Game Store).  Our game business exploded, we started working with a few distributors and were able to really enjoy the board game sales, especially when Covid hit.  We didn’t have puzzles at HABA but we sure had games and wow did they sell. 


Honestly the chance for me to speak to end users and sit down and play games with young toddlers and teach them how to “throw” dice was one of the highlights of my career at HABA.  It allowed the Mom in me to reflect back at when my two children were young; still brings tears to my eyes.  The benefits of spending time playing games with your children is such an important, vital part of emotional, intellectual growth for our young children.  Being able to put quality games into their homes was one of the most fulfilling aspects of my career. 



What was your favorite toy or game as a child?


In looking back I would have to say that playing board games and card games sparks the most fun memories for me. I remember distinctly playing Husker Du and Trouble but my favorite was the Life board game. I loved collecting a salary for my career and budgeting my spends; weird, I know.  When my children were young (late 1990’s) we had of the Tickle Me Elmo toys.  I brought one of the Elmos to Nurnberg during Spielwarenmesse and brought it down to the hotel bar for my HABA colleagues to see, now that was a fun night!


Are you named after anyone?


I was named after the Roy Orbison love ballad, Leah; my parents decided to drop the “h”.  My dad was born and raised in Texas, I received my grandmother’s name Darnell as my middle name.  I have always said my name sounds so much sweeter when said with a southern twang “Lea Darnell”.  


Do you have a nickname?


When I was young I had red hair and always was smiling so I was “smiley” or “red”.  Today I’m affectionally called “Kid” by my husband and a few close friends. 


Do you have any kiddos?


I’m so glad you asked! I have two children.  A son named Robert “Bobby” who is turning 30 in March (gulp).  He’s recently received his Civil Engineering degree and went to work for the same consulting firm my husband Todd has worked at for over 25 years.  We have a beautiful, smart 26 year old daughter, McKenna Lea, that is currently a buyer and living in Austin, TX. 


Do you have any guilty pleasures?


I love to fish with my husband and family; we retired and sold our home near Madison, WI to move 5 hours north to be at our lake home in Northwestern Wisconsin.  We fish in all seasons and make it a point to fish whenever we go on vacation, no matter where in the world we go.  I’m also known locally for loving to play Water Pong (beer pong table that floats).  We bring it out at the sand bar every weekend in the summer; it’s always ready in the pontoon.  In February this year I went to Buscerias Mexico and my friends brought out their water pong table and blew it up just for me so we could play it in the pool. 


Our other guilty pleasure is dressing up in costumes. My husband and I love Halloween, costume parties, etc.


(Lea bouncing with her dad on their trampoline while at her sister's backyard wedding.)


Do you have any special talents?


I grew up with a unicycle and a trampoline (rectangle one). This was in the late 70’s when no one had a Olympic size trampoline in their backyard.  I can still do a backflip (at least I think I can).  I just mentioned to my family that I may buy a unicycle again just to see if the saying is true.   I also worked at Rollerblade Inc. during their hey days in the 1980’s.  Rollerblade hosted a BSU (Blade School University) and it was held at the Disney Epcot parking lot.  I learned how to ride downstairs on my inline skates (and at the time I didn’t know it, but I was pregnant). 


I’m lucky that….


I am married to my best friend that makes me laugh every single day.  And that I was able to spend the bulk of my career in an industry I dearly love.


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