Managing a Toy Business in Ukraine: Q&A with Constantine Rolin, Co-Owner of Wise Elk™
March 29, 2022 | When The Toy Foundation (TTF) launched its campaign to help children and families in Ukraine, one of the first to respond was Toy Association member and co-owner of Wise Elk™, Constantine Rolin, who currently resides in Ivano-Frankivsk in Western Ukraine. TTF had the privilege to speak with Rolin to discuss the war’s impact on his family and colleagues, how Wise Elk is supporting the local community, and how it’s adapting its business operations.
TTF is working closely with Wise Elk and other organizations on the ground to provide comfort and aid to the millions impacted by the war in Ukraine. The global play community has collectively donated more than $2.6 million in monetary and product donations through TTF’s Ukrainian relief fund.
TTF: How are you, your family and your colleagues doing?
Rolin: We are working to adapt to the new reality in Ukraine. Every day and every night we have a couple of sirens that signal us to go to the bomb shelter, but other than that the goal for everyone here is to make the economy work in support of our country. Eastern Ukraine is much more damaged with greater issues to their day-to-day operations, and we must support them. We will do so while remaining safe, which is our top priority.
TTF: Tell us about Ukraine.
Rolin: Ukraine is a beautiful country with a hard history. I was born in Ukraine in 1991 when we first gained independence. We don’t have a long history, but much has changed over the past 30 years and today it’s the land of opportunity.
The people here take a lot of initiative, and many have become entrepreneurs which will make Ukraine a better country. Many people also do not know that Ukraine is the largest country in Europe, so there is lots of room to fill it up with business, beautiful architecture, and nature.
TTF: How is Wise Elk helping the local community?
Rolin: We have local initiatives in place to help the kids and families in need as quickly as possible.
We are working with kids’ organizations like Plast Ukrainian Scouting Organization, with whom we’ve worked with in the past to donate toys, as well as the Ivano-Frankivsk Humanitarian office and the governor and mayor of Ivano-Frankivsk. We are also collecting money through our retail partners in the U.S., including HeyJoy Store, Wicked Uncle and others, to donate to local organizations who are doing important work, like providing food and sleeping supplies.
Our partners in the U.S. have provided great help in making donations and connecting us with other American manufacturers to receive much needed medical supplies.
TTF: How can the global play community best support Ukraine?
Rolin: The best way to help is to support the refugees, those who left Ukraine for nearby countries and the many who have moved to the Central and Western parts of Ukraine.
Toys are a great thing to donate to kids here. They can be shipped to Poland and then delivered to Ukraine in 30 to 35 days when hopefully the supply chains will not be as overloaded. Additionally, medical supplies are greatly needed with the hospitals struggling to find surgery kits and other important supplies.
Last, money is always helpful to donate to The Toy Foundation and other local kids’ organizations like Plast Ukrainian Scouting Organization.
TTF: Tell us about Wise Elk and your operations in Ukraine?
Rolin: Wise Elk was founded on the mission to create a brand of toys that are educational, fun, and interesting to play with. Our goal is to make playtime a more thoughtful experience.
We started the company in Ukraine in 2016 where our main product was building blocks which were made using the leftover pieces from a friend’s ceramic picture business that happened to be perfectly square bricks. Today we have grown to three manufacturing facilities in Western Ukraine which produce all of our models for Wise Elk, from small sized castles and real-life buildings, as well as our two additional brands, Art Wille, a line of “Paint by Number” kits, and Cubika, a line of wooden toys and cardboard puzzles.
Our biggest advantage for all three brands is the fact that we manufacture all our products in Ukraine. It is more affordable for everyone involved and creates price stability than if we shipped from other countries which allows us to continue offering quality, educational toys for kids at a great price.
TTF: How is the war in Ukraine impacting your business and manufacturing?
Rolin: We are all working to adapt our business models to the new reality and figure out how everyone can work. In the initial days it was very difficult because no one knew anything, and we didn’t know if Western Ukraine would be invaded. Only recently has our manufacturing picked up and Ukrainian toy stores have reopened as people feel safer.
As the Ukrainian market reopens, we are also starting to manufacture toys for local distribution. We had a few export shipments in the last few days and were lucky to have done a big shipment to Europe just before the war started. Now, we are preparing containers to ship out locally, to Europe, and to America in the coming weeks, but the logistics are complicated. For years we have typically brought our products into Germany to ship from there for efficiency purposes, but because the other ports in Ukraine are shutdown this route is the only option available to Ukrainian factories which causes overload.
That said, we are incredibly lucky to have the option to open our factories and continue to produce toys. We are working to gift toys to local refugees and are focused on shipping product to America where there is growing demand. Previously, people bought our toys because we figured out how to make a great product, but now Americans want to buy our products even more because it is made in Ukraine. We are very grateful for this additional support.
A lot of bad things are happening now, but, as I said earlier, our goal is continuing our business to support the local economy and help sustain the entire country.
TTF: What measures are you taking to ensure the safety of your workers?
Rolin: Safety is our top priority, and we try to make the work as comfortable as possible. Unfortunately, there have been a few air strikes in our area and our employees need to go to the bomb shelter two to three times a day. We make every effort to ensure they are safe.
Our team has also been very resourceful. In the first week of the invasion, no one had work and nothing was clear, but everyone was willing and able to do something, try a different approach or find new ways to use their talents. In response, we have tried to provide work and not stop certain activities, like our marketing or buying. If people are safe and able to work, you will use your abilities more and think less about the dangers outside.
To learn more about Wise Elk, visit wiseelk.us. Learn more about The Toy Foundation’s work at Toyfoundation.org.
For members of the play community looking to aid Ukrainian children and families during the ongoing crisis, TTF continues to seek donations through its Ukrainian relief fund. Monetary donations can be made here and product donations can be made via this form. Members can also reach out directly to TTF’s Executive Director Pamela Mastrota or its Director of Development John Fistolera.