Meet the Halifax man behind 500 million of your favourite toys

Steve Kay glides a Celestial Orb through its transformations with a practiced hand. The founder of Orb Toys handcrafted the first of the mesmerizing wire widgets around 1986.

“This was originally designed just for my own interest. I started finding a lot of interest with my friends and family. ‘Can you make me one of those?’ It started selling naturally,” he says, sitting against a wall of toys at his company’s Spryfield, N.S., headquarters.

That first orb soon led to a second, and a third. Sitting up late at night after his paying job ended, he wove the wire to create orbs to sell at local markets.

“With my own hands, I’m sure I made at least 50,000 of these.”

Today, Orb is one of the fastest-growing toy and activities companies in the world. Kay’s team of 130 Nova Scotians can turn an idea into a packaged prototype in 48 hours. In 90 days, they can turn that concept into a mass-produced toy on shelves around the world.

Kay made the first 50,000 copies of the Celestial Orb by hand. (CBC)

An early hit was a metal Magnetic Mosaics in 1998. Kids stick tiles to the magnetic surface to create art from a template, or from imagination.

“The idea was if a six- or eight-year-old child, who shouldn’t be able to make something so beautiful and intricate, [could] craft this, take it to mom and dad, and they’d really get a wow from their parents,” he explains.

It was a huge hit.

“And that became the guiding principle for everything that Orb has done since then. Our mission statement is all about awe and wonder.”

By 2006, they freshened that idea up with Sticky Mosaics, a similar product with different materials and more themes.

It all built on his own childhood passion for making things.

“There wasn’t a lot of money back then. The original toy is a stick and a rock,” Kay says.

Growing up in Moncton, N.B., he spent long hours in his grandfather’s wood workshop making toys. He sold them to his teachers in junior high. He studied at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., and then the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax.

Orb’s staff can turn an idea into a prototype in 48 hours. It can be mass-produced and on shelves around the world in just 90 days. (CBC)

Orb was formally launched in 1991 and Kay expects to sell 60 million toys this year. To date, the company has sold 500 million toys worldwide. Some of today’s bestsellers are Soft ‘n Slow Squishies, Bubbleez and Slimy. Plush Crafts and Ezee Beads also remain popular.

The toys are now made in China, but they’re created in Nova Scotia. Orb employs 130 people locally and is on a hiring spree to keep pace with demand. It’s come a long way since the early days, when banks laughed off his loan requests for his peculiar “hobby.”

“Whatever you are passionate about, stay with that,” says Kay. 

“If it’s something that’s going to get you out of bed every morning and working hard — and at the end of the day, feel like you haven’t worked? That’s the thing you’re ultimately going to be successful with.”

Kay did show CBC a prototype of Orb’s top-secret next big toy — but you’ll have to wait until Christmas 2019 to hear about that.

Kids love these Squishies. (CBC)

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