Everything’s got a dark side — even a yo-yo.
The spinning trinket offers good clean fun to kids of all ages, but the business behind it can be a mucky trench of jealousy, subterfuge, and espionage. Ask Ken Russell, candidate for City of Miami commissioner and former yo-yo businessman and world champion. He spent the '90s circling the globe, igniting a love of yo-yos in the hearts of millions and striking lucrative deals with name-brand companies from Coca-Cola to Adidas.
“There’s a scientific formula for generating fads, and not many people know it,” Russell says. “[Competitors] try to sink your business. You’d think toys and the whole fun of it would be this carefree business. It got so bad. I was actually quite jaded. One person faked emails, impersonated email addresses, and sent emails to our major multinational clients canceling our business.”
Russell will take a night off from campaigning Saturday to entertain and enlighten as part of a storyteller symposium from Miami group Lip Service, a presentation of the Aqua Foundation that offers “true stories, out loud.” He’ll join a cast of eight thinkers, writers, and persons of interest to speak on the theme of power. Russell says his talk will concentrate on his experience being raised in and working to keep alive the world of yo-yos.
As strange as it may sound, yo-yoing is in his blood. His father, Jack Russell, was the mastermind of modern yo-yo construction and held the patent for the toy made from two plastic sides and a wooden connector. That’s how he met Ken’s mother, Kazuyo Russell, the best yo-yo talent from Japan and master of ikebana flower arranging.
Jack began the Russell Yo-Yo empire in the 1940s with Miami as home base. He built his home on Mashta Island with yo-yo money. Come Halloween, kids would line up to receive the annual Russell Yo-Yo in lieu of chocolate treats.
“For me, this was my youth. I thought this was normal,” Russell says. “When I was a kid, there were always people coming from overseas to visit with my dad. They’d always be wearing really slick suits and dark glasses, yo-yos jingling in their pockets. It was about 150 yo-yo champions that worked for us around the world, all at different ranks and management levels. Top brass would come in, and these guys would always show me a yo-yo trick and go about their business with my dad.”
He was reluctant to accept his place in the family business. It was a little embarrassing growing up prince of the yo-yo mafia, but by the time he hit high school, he became more embarrassed admitting he didn’t know anything about the family trade. He came home one afternoon on a mission to master the playful art, and his mom taught him everything she knew.
He learned just in time to take over the family business. His affable personality, familial pride, and knack for negotiating helped him find success. He had a lot of fun, saw much of the world, and met thousands of interesting and kind people, but the nastier sides of the business, coupled with the economic downturn of 2008, eventually pushed him on to new ventures.
Over the years, he developed a love of stand-up paddleboarding and other watersports, so he formed a local company to capitalize on growing interest. Last year, he took on local government in a charge to clean up Miami’s lead-poisoned public parks, which led him to his recent decision to run for political office. He believes his unique marketing and entrepreneurial background gives him political edge that would be good for our transitional city.
“Everything I’ve done up to now has sort of trained me for this,” Russell says. “It’s made me really excited. I didn’t know there was a place for me in local politics, but I’m fitting in perfectly, and I’m really enjoying it.”
Since joining the campaign trail, Russell has found that his unique skill set as a creative mind and businessman sets him apart from the traditional lawyers and politicians who meticulously examine the issues or pander to voters.
“The entrepreneur or businessperson who’s in sales and negotiation, mediation, and managing employees, they have a skill set that’s ‘Let’s get stuff done,’” he says. “I’m running a business, and I’m trying to make money or I’m trying to grow something. When you translate that to politics and you bring in all the other bits of running a complete company, like the yo-yo business, it teaches you to think outside the box. It teaches you to work with all sorts.”
A big part of the job of running Russell Yo-Yo was persuading giant companies to buy millions of yo-yos as marketing tools. M&M Mars has nothing to do with yo-yos, but Russell excelled in finding and presenting the mutual benefit to all sides and then carrying out the business in a way that brought those benefits to fruition.
“We’re all trying to get to similar places, and in a community, you really are,” he says. “With quality-of-life issues — reduce the stress issues like traffic and things like that — you start finding all the players involved and you start looking for what they’re trying to achieve. You try to find the common ground. It shouldn’t be a new concept in politics, but I’m finding it to be a little bit novel.”
He ponders these parallels as he prepares for Saturday’s presentation, and he also does a lot of practicing. It’s been years since he picked up a yo-yo, but the good news is, it’s kind of like riding a bike. It’s a little uncomfortable at first, but the training comes back fast enough.
“Your hands gets soft,” he laughs. “When I used to do it for work, it would be eight hours of playing. You’d get rough, calloused hands like a field worker, but you’re playing yo-yo. It was a tough job. People think it’s all glitz and glam, but it’s not.”
He doesn’t see the Lip Service event as a stop on the campaign trail, though he does recognize the difficulty in separating the two worlds. As the evening approaches, he’s a little nervous. Does Miami want a yo-yo in office?
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“I don’t look like I did a couple years ago when I was running a surfboard company,” he says. “I put the tie back on, which has been a while. I got the haircut. I got out of the board shorts. For me, that’s just respect for the office, and I’m going to be meeting with people who want to know I’m taking this seriously.”
In doing so, he’s afraid he has shied away too much from the creative side of his life. Yo-yoing isn’t the half of it. He’s a musician, an athlete, an award-winning wood sculptor. At first, he was reluctant to bring up the “not very grown-up-sounding” sides of his life, but a recent talk from Richard Florida at the Emerge Americas conference had Russell thinking maybe those things that make him different aren’t necessarily bad.
“There’s a huge gap and lack of creativity in government as a whole. People think of these gray suits doing boring legislation, and I think there’s a huge place for [creativity], so I’m trying to embrace my crazy past,” he says. “I’m gad to defend it, because I’m very proud of my family and what my dad did with it. It’s a crazy story, but for me, it’s inspiring.”
Lip Service, "True Stories Out Loud," Talks on "Power" Saturday, May 9, at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables. The show begins at 8 p.m., and tickets cost $15 to $30 plus fees via instantseats.com. Learn more about Ken Russell and his campaign for City of Miami commissioner in District 2 at kenrussellmiami.com.