How to Infuse an Icon With Innovation

By Robert Pasin, a YPO member since 1998

Like many kids, I grew up with a Radio Flyer wagon. My brothers and sister and I took it to the moon and to the Wild West. We raced it in the Indy 500. I always thought that wagon was magical — and even more so because my grandfather, Antonio Pasin, invented it.

My grandfather, an Italian cabinetmaker, was obsessed with good design. His father and grandfather were carpenters in a small town in Northern Italy and from the time he was 9 years old, he served as an apprentice learning the principles of craftsmanship, quality and beautiful design. He brought that attention to detail, that passion for quality and that love of beautiful design with him to America at the age of 16. Soon thereafter, he invented the Liberty Coaster Wagon. It was a hit and every product he produced in his growing factory had to meet his exacting standards.

When I joined the company 25 years ago, we were at a crossroads and the business was struggling. Competitors had introduced plastic wagons that were taking sales away from our bestselling wagon of 30 years, the wooden Town & Country Wagon. We needed to reinvent everything about Radio Flyer, or we would not survive another year, let alone make it to our 100th anniversary. Looking back, I see we followed four key steps that transformed the company.

Change the questions you are asking

When I joined the company, we had a “factory-driven” product development process that basically started with the question, “What can we make in our factory out of steel?” This approach had served us well for 75 years, but the external environment had changed — demand for steel wagons was declining. We shifted to a consumer-focused approach by asking, “What products do people expect from Radio Flyer and how can we help families solve problems?” This led us to build an on-site test track where kids can use our products and their feedback would provide our designers insight into how to build a better wagon. We started spending time with consumers, including going into people’s homes to interview parents and learn what works and what doesn’t.

Build a talented product development team

Once we started asking the right questions, we started to see all kinds of opportunities to expand our product line. For example, when we asked people what Radio Flyer products they had as a kid, people would often say, “A red Radio Flyer tricycle.” The strange thing was, we never had made tricycles! Clearly, this was something we should develop and we began ramping up our development capabilities, hiring top industrial designers from the companies we admired as well as from top schools. We also launched an internship program to start feeding our talent pipeline.

Invest in a prototyping culture

As the team grew, we learned we needed to expand our ability to prototype ideas prior to bringing products to market so we could quickly iterate and prove out concepts in the real world. We invested in adding a wood shop, steel welding capabilities, 3-D printing, computer numeric control (CNC) machines and a paint booth so we could build world-class prototypes. This also helped us attract and retain more great talent. When recruiting an engineer and designer, the first thing we show them is the prototype lab. It’s like a playground for them, and most companies don’t have it.

Eradicate fear around failure

We were asking the right questions, had the right team and were able to develop more new products than ever before. We had some terrific wins, but failures too. Some of the failures were really expensive and we realized our team was starting to get a little bit scared to fail. We realized we needed to embrace failure — nine out of 10 new consumer products fail — and we needed to make intentional efforts to take the fear out of failure. Now, I share my failures with every new employee. I tell our “Flyers” that stuff is going to fail, but that if we “fail intelligently” by owning up to our mistakes, by not betting the farm on any one product and by openly mining failures for learning, it is OK.

Robert Pasin is the Chief Wagon Officer of Radio Flyer. Since he joined the company, sales have grown significantly as a result of his focus on building a vibrant, creative team and an expanded product line. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Northwestern University, Pasin is an active member of the Chicago community, an avid runner and enjoys spending his downtime creating family videos and playing with his four children in their backyard full of wagons, tricycles and other ride-on toys. 

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