From bricks to the big screen, Lego thrives on family fun

Published: Thursday, Feb. 6 2014 3:45 p.m. MST

From left, Lego minifigures Wyldstyle (voiced by Elizabeth Banks), Emmet (Chris Pratt) and Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) in "The LEGO Movie."

Warner Bros. Pictures

More than 19 billion pieces are produced every year. That’s 2.16 million of them every hour and 36,000 every minute. The toy, first produced in 1958, has become one of the most universally recognizable brands on the market. Jesus Diaz, an official blogger for the company, reports that 400 billion of them have been manufactured since the toy was first produced. Additionally, statistics on his blog show that seven of these play sets are sold worldwide every second.

That’s a whole lot of Legos.

In the past 82 years, the Lego Group has come a long way from its origins as a small European toy company. When sales soared to $4.04 billion at the end of 2012, Bloomberg News reported that Lego had finally passed Mattel to become the world’s most valuable toy manufacturer. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the company, which experienced tremendous financial turmoil in the early 2000s. But thanks to the integration of official product licensing, a franchise of successful TV shows and video games, and a full-length feature film opening Feb. 7, Lego is now a major multimedia presence.

Lego history

As detailed on its website, the Lego Group was founded in 1932 by a Danish carpenter named Ole Kirk Kristiansen. When Kristiansen lost his job during a depression in the Danish economy, he began building wooden toys for a living. After the death of his wife, he crafted a small, wooden duck for his four young sons to play with. The toy was a hit with his boys, so Kristiansen began to produce more ducks with the wood left over from his job as a carpenter. He called his new business “Lego,” the combination of two Danish words (“leg godt”). “Lego” means “play well.”

And generations of people around the world have played well with Kristiansen’s creations, which gradually made the transition from wooden toys to interlockable plastic bricks. Fortune Magazine and the British Association of Toy Retailers named Lego the "Toy of the Century." Ranging in size from standard play sets to Duplos (Lego’s larger, more toddler-friendly line of bricks) to a life-size sculpture of an X-Wing starship at a Legoland theme park, Lego has established a globally recognized product.

Disaster struck in 2004, when the company was on the verge of collapse. Many attributed Lego’s downfall to the failed launch of a product line called "Galidor," a futuristic team of human explorers and their extraterrestrial counterparts. “The new designs weren't resonating with kids,” wrote Jay Greene of Businessweek. “They didn't require building skills or much in the way of imagination, the hallmark of the more traditional Lego construction toys.”

Greene referred to the Galidor line and its dud of a TV show as “a legendary bomb inside the walls of Lego.” The Galidor toys and their accompanying sets required a complex variety of parts, including different heads, helmets and a vast array of new colors. Supply costs and the price of production skyrocketed.

The United Kingdom’s Mail Online, in a 2009 story called "When Lego lost its head — and how this toy story got its happy ending," attributed Lego’s struggles to “the company's attempts in the Nineties to make itself more modern and relevant in the age of video games.”

Mail Online reported that between 1932 and 1998, Lego had never experienced a financial deficit in its yearly reports. The crisis that came in the wake of 2003 and 2004 created an imperative need for a companywide overhaul. Jørgen Vig Knudstorp was named the new CEO of the Lego Group in October 2005.

“We needed a permanent change in our lifestyle,” Knudstorp told Mail Online, comparing Lego’s economic downturn in the early 2000s to a heart attack. “What we realized is that the more we're true to ourselves, the better we are.”

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