Relationships play key role in Wild Republic’s international growth


To be totally reductive, Wild Republic is a business built on stuffed plush animals. A quintessentially entrepreneurial story: G.B. Pillai, once an electrical engineer, started the company with his wife out of their home in 1976. It got large enough that Pillai quit his day job and launched K&M Toys, named after his children. What’s remarkable is just how big it’s gotten.

Some 500 people work for what is now K&M International, a fitting name considering its workforce is spread across facilities in the U.S., Canada, Denmark, United Arab Emirates, Africa, India, China and Australia. It has some 2,000 existing products to which it adds as many as 600 each year. Its core customers are zoos, aquariums and museums, and it has a growing retail business that reaches consumers, via Amazon, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Target, Bass Pro Shops, Hobby Lobby and others.

Impressive. But how it got there — and how it continues to bootstrap itself into novel lines of business — is so obvious and basic that many looking for a clever market strategy to outwit their competition might just overlook it: Wild Republic grows through relationships.

Why not?

On the other end of the phone, Vishnu B Chandran, president of Wild Republic, the dba of K&M, sits in the Wild Republic showroom in Twinsburg, Ohio, surrounded by the plushy versions of wild animals that made the company what it is today. The office is the epicenter through which all day-to-day activities are monitored.

Keeping the vast, global network of employees and operations humming is Chandran’s job.

Pillai’s grandson started with the company in an advisory capacity, working to understand the different departments and their needs, and come up with ways to improve communication. Eventually, he began overseeing all the departments, freeing Pillai to shift into more of an advisory role as CEO and scan the market for opportunities. In fact, that’s the reason Pillai wasn’t available on the day of the call. He had to travel to one of the company’s overseas facilities.

“He’s really the ideas guy,” Chandran says. “He’s really all about, ‘Let’s try this for this market.’”

Pillai does a lot of research on the competition to help Wild Republic create better merchandising and displays. He looks at growth areas and brings feedback to the company about what he sees.

He’s also still in touch with the people who lead Wild Republic’s core customers — zoos, aquariums and museums. It’s through the relationships he’s established over his more than four decades in the business that Wild Republic has found new ways to separate itself from the competition.

For example, Tiergarten Schönbrunn, which translates to Vienna Zoo, in Vienna, Austria, wanted to get into its own retail, but couldn’t afford it. So, the zoo connected with Pillai and came up with an idea to have Wild Republic build a shop from the ground up. It was something the company had never done before, but the opportunity was clear.

“Strategically it was the next step because we already provide the wholesale product and we were able to then take advantage of the retail opportunity where the consumers are shopping, and that’s really where we felt there was an opportunity to make good money in that,” Chandran says. “And being that we were experts in the zoo, museum and aquarium market, why not operate a zoo shop?”

In the deal between Wild Republic and the Vienna Zoo, Wild Republic would rent the space from the zoo, paying a monthly fee based on the sales turnover, staff it, set the product mix and capture the retail profits.

Europe was an untapped market in Wild Republic’s eyes. Its customers there were not as developed in retail, which made the concessionary model a way to make money without the responsibility of running the shop. Wild Republic gets a source of revenue, and gets insight into which products are performing, and what non-Wild Republic products are doing well, to inform product development.

“We use it as a market research testing ground,” Chandran says. “And then we also use it as a way to understand how certain merchandising would work. We get ideas from it for the wholesale business.”

The move kicked off a wholly new aspect of the business. Wild Republic Retail has opened stores at Zoo Berlin and Tierpark Berlin, two locations under the same group; in Liverpool, England, at Knowsley Safari Park; and the Al Ain Zoo in the United Arab Emirates. Concessionary is now about 5 percent of its total business.

The company has further leveraged this opportunity into a consulting line. At the time of the interview, Wild Republic Retail had just finished a merchandising, display, construction and consulting bid with the French aquarium Nausicaá, the largest public aquarium in Europe.

“We’re getting into consulting with retail product mix — shop fittings as well as other aspects of the gift shop — for these venues,” Chandran says. “We actually have opportunities in the Orient that are coming up as the result of this line of business.”