Pound Puppies creator

FERNANDINA BEACH | Part of the key to success in Mike Bowling’s line of work involves thinking like a child.

The Amelia Island resident clearly can do that. He created Pound Puppies in the 1980s, launching what would eventually become the second-best known canine in the world. The first, you may have guessed, is Snoopy.

Though Pound Puppies changed Bowling’s life and allowed him to leave behind 18 years of work on the assembly line at a Ford plant in Cincinnati, his creative juices have never stopped flowing. He has continued to design and license toys since moving to Fernandina Beach in 1993.

His latest effort, which hit toy stores in late summer, involves six mermaids who live in a kingdom at the bottom of the sea filled with magic shells and pearls.

The inspiration for Waverly and the Magic Seashells and the Mermaids of Azarella came to Bowling one day at the beach about 31/2 years ago. He was walking with his young granddaughter when she asked what was inside a seashell. His response: “mermaids.”

The exchange got Bowling thinking.

“All little girls like to collect shells at the beach, and all little girls know what mermaids are.” Why not create a line of toy shells with mermaids inside them?

But turning the idea into reality was a lengthy process, said Bowling, 63. “My name will get me in the door, but that doesn’t mean they [the toy companies] will say yes.”

Here is where the child inside Bowling must merge with his creative and business sides. It took Bowling about a year and a half to develop the prototype for the mermaid line. He worked with three different artists, giving each the same assignment, and then “hiring the one I liked the best” to follow through on his creative vision. This involved everything from size (the mermaids are 3 inches tall) to getting the right look for all of the components, from the shells (Bowling went with a conch shell) to the pearls to the six mermaids, each of whom needed a distinctive personality.

Bowling also wanted to create a story line to spark imagination and play. The result: mermaids who ride sea horses as they collect a series of pearls that, interacting with the magic (read: battery-powered, talking) shells, would unlock secrets about the kingdom of Azarella.

He then began shopping the line to toy companies. He got two rejections before The Bridge Direct agreed to manufacture and distribute the mermaids. The toy company also markets Power Rangers, a line of toys from “The Hobbit” and Justin Bieber performance dolls.

Waverly and the Magic Seashells and the Mermaids of Azarella, which are designed for kids ages 4 to 9, are sold at Kmart, Target, Toys R Us and FAO Schwarz.

Many toys have a hit book (think “Harry Potter”) or Saturday morning TV show behind them to help with their success, Bowling said. He doesn’t have either of those with Waverly and the Magic Seashells. But the marketing process now includes a website (magicseashells.com/index/php) with a 3 1/2-minute video and a 30-second commercial.

A local tie-in is found in the name of one of the mermaids – Amelia. Bowling said that his nod to Amelia Island will probably only be recognized by people in this region, and that’s fine.

Christmas is the litmus test for any toy, Bowling said, and he’s hopeful that Waverly and friends will be a hit with holiday shoppers.

“At the end of the day, the kids are the final deciders” about any toy, he said.

In the meantime, Bowling continues to enjoy the rewards brought by Pound Puppies, which at one point were the No. 1 selling toy in the world. He owns, for example, a 1985 red Ferrari. But the toy creator downplays the financial side of his success. For him, the joy is still in the doing, and in seeing the results.

“I remember the first Pound Puppy I saw with a child,” Bowling said. “I was at the Toronto airport – we actually began distributing the Pound Puppies in Canada before they were distributed in the United States – and I saw a little girl with a Pound Puppy. I just stood there and watched her hold it. It was a great feeling.”

David Crumpler: (904) 359-4164