Like baseball or jazz, the rubber duck is an American institution, and Craig Wolfe ’74 is its reigning king, putting a fresh face on the classic novelty and bringing the industry home with two manufacturing facilities now in the U.S.
“The rubber duck was invented in America, and then went overseas,” says Wolfe, president of CelebriDucks, the only rubber duck manufacturer in the country and the top custom manufacturer in the world designing custom ducks for everyone from Harley-Davidson and SeaWorld to The New York Yankees. “I wouldn’t want to give up something invented here. Since we brought jobs and a whole industry back to America, the company has been growing in ways we never really envisioned. It’s been a lot of work, but we’re at the top of our game and proud of it. The future is limitless.”
Wolfe has a history of creative entrepreneurship. His earlier company, Name That Toon, developed the first animation art lines for Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch, M&M/Mars, Pillsbury, Campbell Soup and Hershey, among others. From these companies’ television commercials, Wolfe and his team developed lines of artwork for some of the most beloved characters in advertising history, including The Pillsbury Doughboy, The Budweiser Frogs, the Coca-Cola Polar Bears, and many others. Eventually, Name that Toon grew to become the largest publisher of advertising/animation art in the U.S.
When a friend had an idea at a party — “what if you could make rubber ducks that look like celebrities?” — Wolfe ran with it. With the success of Name That Toon, Wolfe says, “I had enough time and money to make one, so I figured, why not?”
As Name That Toon was thriving, CelebriDucks developed as “a fun side project,” with Wolfe’s daughter Rebecca designing some of the early products, but has since become for Wolfe a full-time, international enterprise.
Since the first Betty Boop prototype, the company has created various lines of rubber duck products that resemble actors, musicians, historical and religious figures, and animated and literary characters. From KISS and The Blues Brothers to Marilyn Monroe and Mr. T, CelebriDucks has “segued into different niches and kept expanding,” explains Wolfe, who is also president of Cocoa Canard, a chocolate company that grew out of CelebriDucks. “We’re creating little pockets and brands to segue into unique and cool things that have propelled us to the top of industry and allowed us to bring jobs back to the United States.”
Wolfe is based in California, the company’s art department is in Cincinnati, and its factories are overseas and, most recently, now also in New York and outside of Detroit. With the creation of The Good Duck — the world’s safest rubber duck made out of food and medical grade materials which will be released this month (December 2015), CelebriDucks is now bringing its second factory on-line, producing ducks in the USA.
With millions sold, CelebriDucks has been voted one of the top 100 Gifts by “Entertainment Weekly” and featured on “The Tonight Show” three times, as well as on “Conan,” CNN, ABC, NBC, TNT, The New York Times, Chicago Sun Times, Los Angeles Times, and hundreds of other media outlets worldwide.
Wolfe, who majored in English and religious studies, says that “business is 80 percent communication and that’s one thing I really learned at Hobart — that’s the skill I really needed in order to do what I do. I didn’t know how to manufacture, but I could write proposals, communicate with people, tell a story and interface. That’s what college is about — broadening your take on humanity altogether.”
With a “lean and mean” business model, CelebriDucks shows no signs of slowing down, but that’s a function, Wolfe says, of having “passion for what you do. Business alone will never satisfy. The degree to which you can do good for other human beings — that’s the purpose of business to me: to make a difference and be a good steward for the people you work with.”