Sheila Ann Wright of Bloomfield Hills went from designing cars to designing toys that are a labor of love. Wright, a Lawrence Technological University graduate, founded the Ann Williams Group in 2007 after working at Chrysler in its Product Management and Product Development department and had dreams of starting her own business. Her inspiration came from her two children, son Owen and daughter Amelia. Wanting to remain close to her children even while they were away at school, Wright came up a recordable device that would play her voice messages to her children. That was the basis for the Talkatoo, the first product the company put out in 2010, which became a best-seller. The friendship bracelet maker, the Loopdedoo, soon followed in 2011 and in May, the company will put out Talkatales, which are blank books where children can draw and create a story and also record their voice. Her products have been featured at expos across the country and are now being sold online and at stores nationwide. To learn more about and purchase these items, visit annwilliamsgroup.com. Wright spoke with the Spinal Column Newsweekly about her company’s success and how one goes from the auto line to the toy line.
Tell us about your company, the Ann Williams Group, and how the idea came about. Tell us about the process of starting up your business.
SW: Well, the company manufactures children’s products, so we make toys for kids. The name of the company is actually from my kids. My son’s middle name is William and my daughter’s middle name is Ann, so we named the company after them.
I have a background in engineering. I worked in the automotive industry for 15 years as a design engineer and that background has come in handy because knowing how to design and manufacture products has been helpful.
I would say that I had a window of opportunity to spend time with my kids before they went to school all day, so I quit my job and then they went to school all day and I didn’t want to go back. I was bored, so I had an idea for a product that was passionate about, so I started the company and it took about a year and a half to get the product to market.
I worked primarily at Chrysler for about 15 years working on body design.
Among your company’s most popular items is the Talkatoo, which is a recordable charm, and Talkatales, which are recordable books. What was the inspiration behind these products and why are recordable items so important to you?
SW: Well, my kids were younger, I would take them to day care. The drop-offs were tough. It was hard for both of us sometimes and so I always felt like if I could leave a little piece of myself with them, it would make it easier. So sometimes I would draw a heart on their hand or, as I got older, I put a little note in their lunch box. It always felt like there was a better way. So I came up with this idea to leave them with a little voice message that they could listen to anytime they wanted and that was called Talkatoo. That was the first product that we came out with.
Talkatales is a recordable, drawable book, that’s actually coming in May. I thought that was a really cool way to capture kids drawing and their sweet little voices that disappear as they get older.
The friendship bracelet device known as the Loopdedoo is another one of your best-sellers. How were you able to put a new twist on an item that has been around for years?
SW: Well, friendship bracelets have been around for years, and this device makes them in minutes. It’s a different way of making them. The traditional method is to tie knots — to weave them, basically — and the Loopdedoo device takes thread and spins it around itself, so it only takes a few minutes to make a friendship bracelet. The idea came from watching my daughter try to make a friendship bracelet. She was struggling and having trouble with it and it was taking a long time, so it came into my head to try a different method and it ended up working out pretty good.
What were some of your favorite toys as a child? Growing up, what were some of your aspirations and did you envision starting your own business?
SW: Things are so different now than they were when I was a child. We were outside playing all the time. A lot of the toys that I played with were dolls and Barbies and stuff like that, and just playing outside.
It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to have my own business, to build a company and I was never in the position or never had a good idea. But I was passionate to take the leap, so it just stayed a dream in my head for years and years. Finally I was in a position (to make a business work), I had an idea, and I took the leap.
What were some of the major obstacles you and your business had to overcome in its early stages? What was the one moment where you can say the company had its first taste of success and that it was heading on the right path?
SW: There are a lot of obstacles, I think. First, it was helpful that I had the engineering background, so I knew how to take a product to market. But there’s so much that I don’t know because I was in (the) automotive (industry) and now I’m in toys, so there’s a whole new industry to learn.
And of course, the funding problem and sourcing overseas has been a struggle because the products that I make, unfortunately, I can’t make here in the (United) States because it’s too cost prohibitive. So finding a reliable source to make them has been a big challenge.
We’ve exhibited several times at several trade shows, (and) one of the larger ones is the New York Toy Fair. We exhibited there for the first time three years ago and we had a lot of interest from a lot of people, large companies and small companies. People loved the product and we had a lot of press and (public relations) and that kind of led us to believe that we were on to something.
And then, we exhibited again two years ago and then again this year with some new products and the interest from retailers continues to grow. The feedback that we’re hearing from retailers is really what we’re excited about because they love the products and they want to put them in their stores.
We’re in a couple stores here in Michigan. Most of our distribution is throughout the rest of the country, though. We have sales reps who sell to small- and medium-sized stores and most of our distribution is through specialty retailers throughout the country.
What are your company’s goals for the future? Where can anyone interested in purchasing your company’s items find them?
SW: (The goal is) to continue to develop new, unique, and innovative products.
All the stores that carry our products are listed on our website, annwilliamsgroup.com. Locally, you can find them at The Doll Hospital and Toy Soldier Shop (in Berkley).