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Problems at Mattel: Despite 'Barbie' success, its stock is a dud. Now an activist investor is circling

Laurence Darmiento, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

If "Barbie" is awarded best picture at next month's Academy Awards, it would only crown what has been an unprecedented moment for the world's No. 1 selling doll.

The glossier half of the "Barbenheimer" sensation not only brought in nearly $1.5 billion at the global box office, but also renewed the cachet of a toy old enough to be Medicare eligible next month — earning Mattel some $150 million, including doll sales and other revenue streams last year.

It all seemed to validate the toy maker's strategy of turning its legacy brands into modern media properties, with more than a dozen other live-action films coming up.

"Our job is to take brands that are timeless and make them timely," is how Mattel Chairman and Chief Executive Ynon Kreiz put it in an interview.

Yet the El Segundo company is not feeling much affection from investors. (Nope, Mattel is not based in the film's imposing Century City high-rise.) After surging during the pandemic, the company's stock performance has been middling, despite a surge after "Barbie" was released and the recent stock market rally.

This has caught the attention of an activist investor, which is pressuring Mattel to change course and better reward its shareholders.

 

The New York hedge fund Barington Capital Group isn't calling for Barbie to be put on the auction block, but the same can't be said for two of its other top brands: Its line of premium-priced American Girl dolls and its iconic Fisher-Price line of baby, toddler and preschool toys.

Barington, which kicked off its campaign with a Feb. 1 letter to Kreiz, is also taking aim at Mattel's executive compensation and governance structure, while calling for $2 billion in stock buybacks to provide a better return for investors. It hasn't disclosed its stake in the company.

"We want to enhance value for all of the shareholders and owners of the company, including the management team," said James Mitarotonda, chairman of Barington. "The company needs to either fix the businesses or sell them."

Barington calculated that Mattel's stock fell 13.2% in the two years preceding its letter, underperforming the Standard & Poor's 500 index by more than 20%. Shares of Mattel have risen about 7% during February's stock rally, closing at $19.61 on Tuesday. The stock hit a high of $26.97 during Kreiz's tenure in May 2022.

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