Katy Dickson is part of an elite group.
As president of American Girl, Dickson is only the fourth person to head the Middleton doll, book and accessories company since it was founded by Pleasant Rowland in 1986.
And Dickson has not been shy about taking the upscale brand into new directions.
Since Dickson took over nearly one year ago, American Girl has made shifts that include:
- Selling dolls in retail stores such as Kohl’s and Toys R Us, and online on Amazon.
- Introducing a new set of dolls – WellieWishers — aimed at younger girls, ages 5 to 7.
- Signing the first contract with a distributor in the Middle East. Shopping mall developer Majid Al Futtaim said, in a news release in December announcing the agreement, that he plans to open the first store in United Arab Emirates in 2017.
With nearly 30 million dolls sold since the company began operating 31 years ago, American Girl is one of the Madison-area’s biggest employers. More than 2,300 employees work year-round at American Girl’s offices and stores around North America, including 472 in Middleton.
American Girl generated $570.8 million in sales during 2016, parent company Mattel reported, down slightly from 2015’s revenue of $572 million, as gains in the second half of the year nearly covered the drop in the first six months.
Dickson, 51, born in Flint, Michigan, was a marketing executive at General Mills for 20 years and then served for a year as executive vice president and global chief marketing officer of News Corp’s News America Marketing division, a major North American coupon distributor, before joining American Girl.
She has an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management and is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy. Dickson is married to Tom Dickson, a patent attorney. They have three children and homes in both Minneapolis and Madison.
Question: Why American Girl? What interested you about the company?
Answer: I am honored to be leading a brand like American Girl which has such a beautiful and rich history, and a positive reputation in the toy industry. I knew Pleasant’s story, that she started as a teacher and wanted to bring purposeful play to girls.
I am the mother of two daughters and a son and we enjoyed books at bedtime. Those books brought us into discussions that I don’t know we would have had, about topics that include the American Revolution and slavery. We learned: It’s about how you face (a problem), and that there is a positive way to influence change.
We also have three American Girl dolls: Felicity, Kit and Rebecca.
Q: How did your appointment come about?
A: My background is in leading brands. I worked for General Mills for over 20 years; I led Nature Valley, Betty Crocker, Pillsbury — I had profit-and-loss leadership over the entire business. I also worked in media for News Corp, so I understood content as well as brand-building.
As I interviewed with Mattel, I could not have been more excited. We kind of “found” each other.
Q: Have there been any surprises in the past year?
A: As I joined the team, I was delighted by the openness to experimentation. It allowed me to say, “Here are some things that I wonder about.”
I wonder about how accessible American Girl is to all of the girls out there. A study of what percentage can get to an American Girl store within an hour’s drive shows only about one-third of all U.S. households can do so. What would it take to get to 90 percent or 95 percent?
We have 20 owned-and-operated stores; I thought about other ways to be accessible, such as Toys R Us and Kohl’s. We were just trying to really put the girl at the center and figure out how we can better meet her needs.
Q: How has the added retail presence affected sales?
A: We’re very pleased with the results so far, and excited for the opportunity (going) forward. Results are very encouraging for the second half of the year.
The customers are happy, happy, happy. They just love that they can be around the brand, that it is in their town. They get a sense of pride that American Girl is in their community.
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I have talked to girls at American Girl stores in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Minnesota and Illinois. Being close to the girls and to the moms is where I get the best insights.
I was in the Mall of America (in Bloomington, Minn.) and it just takes your breath away, how beautiful the American Girl store there is. The girls come in all dressed up.
We want to expand the content we are able to bring to girls. Our relationship with Amazon Studios is about content. They take our characters and bring them to life through original, live-action specials so more girls can connect.
Q: What is the message you want to bring to girls?
A: American Girl’s mission has always been grounded in a girl’s development and helping her reach her potential, to help raise girls of strong character.
Q: Is American Girl still focusing on online information and games, as well?
A: Definitely, girls are online and consuming digital content at a faster pace than ever. One way we are continuing to expand is with our online and our digital content. Our YouTube channel has fresh content every month.
AG Life features five girls who host an online lifestyle show. They interview real girls and offer advice to girls on a wide range of topics affecting their lives, and they do quizzes, crafts and other activities.
Z. Crew is a new doll character we introduced online in 2015. Z — short for Suzie — is a Korean American video blogger who teaches girls how to make stop-motion animated videos.
Q: What are your plans for 2017?
A: We are planning to take those things that are creating growth, hitting the mark, and expanding those. We think there will be continued opportunities for expanded distribution. We’ll also be introducing new characters. They are poignant, they are exciting and they will teach girls gentle life lessons that will very much support building girls of strong character.
WellieWishers will continue as well. They are a line of five girls who are ages 5 to 7, and targeted to a younger girl and they have all kinds of adventures in their backyard garden. Each has strengths and things they’re working on. We have 26 episodes in season one of an animation series streaming on Amazon Prime and Mexico’s Televisa; it will be on in the United Kingdom this spring. We will move forward with season two and we have introduced a product line that has been very successful.
It’s a more accessible price point for a younger girl – it’s $60 for a WellieWisher doll that is 14½ inches tall. We sized them for the girl; they are just the right size for them to carry – really charming, and they represent diversity in personality and looks.
The 18-inch dolls are $115.
Q: Have you met Pleasant Rowland? Are you in contact with her?
A: I have met with Pleasant at an event at the Overture Center. I was absolutely honored to talk to her about the American Girl legacy. It was a thrill to meet the person who started it all 30 years ago. She is still a “spiritual leader” of the company, but not in a day-to-day way.
At the Children’s Theater of Madison production of the American Girls Revue last October, she delighted everybody by attending the final performance and did a Q&A with some of the girls.
Q: Are any more American Girl stores planned? Or do you intend to make changes with the existing stores?
A: No, we are not planning more stores. Our new approach with partner retailers is complementary to our existing stores. It’s important to have multiple ways for people to shop and engage with us.
We’ve opened temporary stores for American Girl, as well. This holiday season, we had seven temporary stores in Detroit; Indianapolis; San Antonio; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Portland, Oregon.
Q: Will American Girl stay in Wisconsin?
A: Absolutely. We don’t have any plans to move American Girl operations. We love it here. For the holidays, we had almost 1,800 seasonal workers in Wisconsin locations. I worked a 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. shift at our DeForest distribution center, and I could not have been more thrilled to meet and work with employees, side by side, elbow to elbow, and experience what a great place this was to work.