Toby Lenk was no Scrooge. He just used to dread Christmas shopping. “My sister would tell me four or five things my young nephew and two nieces might like,” says Lenk, 38. “I’d go, ‘Where can I find it?’ ‘This, you can find at Toys “R” Us, this you might have to go to a specialty store.’ I’m running around trying to find this stuff for days. It was a big ordeal.”
This holiday season Lenk won’t have to face the Muzak, though some on his list might be expecting pricier-than-usual stocking stuffers. The idea he had three years ago—to sell kids’ stuff on the Internet from a site he named eToys.com—has turned the former Disney executive into the latest Internet mogul. Last month FORTUNE estimated Lenk’s wealth (mostly eToys stock and options) at $276 million, making him one of the 40 richest Americans under age 40 (excluding those who inherited their wealth). eToys, which offers children’s books, software and videos as well as toys, raked in $30 million in its last fiscal year, vaulting it to third place among all Internet retailers, behind book biggies Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.
“It’s mind-boggling how far we’ve come,” says the soft-spoken, 6’3″ CEO, who now oversees 400 employees from the company’s toy-strewn Santa Monica, Calif., headquarters. Toys are a natural for the Net, he explains: Harried parents can quickly tap into his site’s 100,000-item selection, including 220 Barbie items, almost 200 Lego kits and hundreds of offbeat toys from small outfits, such as worm farms and bubble makers. eToys also offers recommendations, ships orders in plain brown boxes (so nosy kids don’t spy the company’s logo) and tags gift-wrapped items to show which child gets what. “These are little things that the competition just doesn’t get,” says Christopher Vroom, an industry analyst with Thomas Weisel Partners in San Francisco.
What Lenk doesn’t get is the fuss over his fortune. “It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” he says. He wears a $70 Fossil watch (“It looks pretty nice to me”), leases a Toyota Land Cruiser and rents a modest Santa Monica house he shares with his black Lab Amos. “He’s really Yankee,” says his sister Mindy “Whitman, 44 (mother to giftees Courtney, 17, Anna, 10, and Georden, 7). “Toby will never just blow money.”
Riches haven’t helped the never-wed exec find Ms. Right. Lenk says he occasionally dates but prefers to unwind from 12-hour days by golfing with pals or hiking with Amos. And if marriage has “eluded” him, “I tend to believe that good things come to those who wait,” he says. “So I don’t really stress about it.” Although, he adds with a rueful laugh, “the hair is almost gone.”
The son of homemaker Marilyn and banker Edward Lenk Sr., Toby (a lifelong nickname) grew up in the Boston suburb of Sherborn playing with G.I. Joe. After his parents split, when he was 9, he “shut himself away,” says Mindy. “He was kind of a TV junkie.” Lenk studied economics at Bowdoin College and earned a Harvard M.B.A. in 1987. He went to work for Disney, eventually heading strategic planning for its theme parks. Still, “I had this burning desire to start my own thing,” he says.
In 1996 he quit to mull his next move—and came up with toys. Lenk persuaded dozens of friends and family members to kick in nearly $1 million. After eToys’ successful first holiday season in ’97, “we were off to the races,” he says. Venture capitalists contributed $28 million, and eToys went public last May. Its shares recently traded around $70, putting the market value of the company at more than $8 billion.
Now gearing up for another holiday crunch (Lenk predicts runs on Lego MindStorms robotics sets and all things Pokémon), he voices one regret: that his mother, who died in 1994, can’t see his success. Says-Lenk: “She would have been really proud.”
Karen Brailsford in Santa Monica