Ask the Execs Interview with Panini boss Mark Warsop

With the hobby landscape changing rapidly before our eyes in recent months, many questions have arisen. How will the new exclusive licensing agreements affect collectors? What card companies will be producing what next year? What does the future hold for each company? These are just a small sample of the questions we hear everyday so Tuff Stuff went straight to the top to provide our readers with some answers.
The following is the third installment of our Ask the Execs series with the top executives of the three largest card manufacturers in the industry, with the sole purpose being to provide our readers (and collectors in general) with the answers they need to stay on top of the hobby.

Upper Deck CEO Richard McWilliam kicked off the series with Part I of our interview with Topps Vice President Warren Friss featured in last month’s issue. This month will feature Part II of the Friss interview (pages 126-127) and our exclusive interview with new Panini America President Mark Warsop. We hope you enjoy the series and please go to our Forum page at www.tuffstuff.com to post any questions or comments you might have.
– Scott Fragale

Personal
Tuff Stuff: Can you provide some details into your work history with Panini and what you were involved in prior to the recent transition to CEO?
Mark Warsop: My career started with Panini in 2001, having already spent nine years in the industry working for Merlin Publishing, and Topps, who acquired Merlin in 1995.  I worked as Topps’ marketing manager in Europe and then as Panini’s marketing director in the UK. As Panini UK’s marketing director, I’ve been instrumental in pioneering a lot of the successful marketing initiatives that Panini implements in over 100 territories worldwide.
Tuff Stuff: How difficult has the transition been for the company as a whole and you specifically since the Donruss acquisition was made and now since you’ve taken over the day-to-day operations of the company?
Warsop: Panini purchased one of the oldest trading card companies in the United States, Donruss, which already had in-house expertise in producing high-quality trading card collections. Donruss was an established leader in manufacturing sports and entertainment trading cards in the U.S. In addition, given the history of Donruss, Panini acquired many strong brands such as Prestige, Certified and Elite, among many others. We’ve merged Donruss’ expertise in the hobby shop trading card industry with Panini’s strength in marketing and product development, which we see as a perfect recipe for success and a strong foundation for years to come.
Tuff Stuff: What do you feel the company’s best contributions to the hobby have been or will be moving forward?
Warsop: We have the industry’s most creative minds within our team and we’ve shown this by creating some of the hobby’s most recognized brands and by pioneering some of the industry’s most innovative autograph and memorabilia inserts. Panini’s goal moving forward is to continue that tradition, pushing the envelope to create the most innovative products we can, while delivering value to the collector.  
Tuff Stuff: How big of a priority was it for Panini to gain exclusive rights in the basketball category and what are some of the initiatives the company has planned for next year and beyond? What was it about the basketball category that made Panini go after it so aggressively?
Warsop: Panini is the world’s leading collectibles publisher of both licensed sports and entertainment products and we have premier sports licenses globally. The NBA is the United States’ most global sport, and Panini distributes to over 100 counties worldwide; this made Panini a natural partner for the NBA.  We look forward to growing the NBA collectibles category in the US, and building sales and awareness worldwide.
Tuff Stuff: How much pressure to succeed is on Panini and how confident are you that the initiatives set out early on will be met and/or exceeded?
Warsop:  I believe the pressure is being felt by the entire category, from the manufacturers all the way down to the shop owner and collectors. We have a responsibility to the category to produce the best products for the market. Panini produces several products globally that are extremely popular with kids and our plans are to market heavily to bring back the joy of collecting.
Tuff Stuff: One of the biggest pushes in the hobby overall has been to create a new generation of collectors and get more children involved. What has Panini done and what are some of the future plans for the company to try to meet those initiatives? 
Warsop: Panini has produced children’s collectibles for over 50 years and this is an area where we excel. We are unique among the U.S. trading card manufactures in this regard, and we plan to produce some products geared directly to the youth market. 
Tuff Stuff: What is the biggest challenge in trying to capture the interest of children and make the hobby inviting to them?
Warsop: The key for the youth market is to engage with children on their level. Historically, card manufacturers have produced low retail price SKUs of hobby products to entice children to collect. Children are smart and they know that these are watered-down version of the hobby. Panini will produce products specifically for children that will be engaging, collectible and affordable.  
Tuff Stuff: What are Panini’s plans as far as expanding in baseball and football and breaking into the hockey category in the future?
Warsop: Panini is a global publisher of licensed and non-licensed collectibles and will continue to evaluate all licenses that we believe fit our business model. Panini is an existing licensee of the NBA, NFL and NHL.
Tuff Stuff: One of the biggest complaints we hear is regarding redemption cards and the length of time in getting them fulfilled. What are some of the things that Panini has done and will do to alleviate those concerns/complaints?
Warsop: Our starting goal is to always have zero redemptions. This was our goal with our first NBA releases, but our acquisitions team did a tremendous job in getting a stable of athletes to sign quickly.  Prestige, our first NBA release, had no redemption cards. We are working closely with NFL players to improve, and feel we have been making some great progress.  In season, we’re strongly competing with a professional athlete’s limited amount of personal time, but it is a challenge that we face head on.
Tuff Stuff: In your estimation, what are collectors in today’s market looking for? What’s the next big thing in your estimation?
Warsop: I believe every collector is looking for the same thing: fun. This is a hobby, and the one thing that keeps bringing collectors back is the fun-factor. The enjoyment of collecting; opening a packet and the thrill and anticipation of what’s inside. Collectibles bring fans closer to their favorite characters, whether that is sports athletes or cartoon heroes. Panini intends to continue to innovate to bring that level of excitement back to collecting cards.
Tuff Stuff: What kind of shape do you think the industry will be in 20 years from now and what are the most important issues facing the hobby as we move into the next decade?
Warsop: I think the industry will be in great shape. The youth market is huge and never diminishes, after all there is a new generation of children born each year. Furthermore, Panini’s efforts in the youth market will build a solid foundation for future hobby collectors for many years to come. SCM

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