Craig Wolfe was a successful animator who had built a strong personal network in the Hollywood community, but the direction of his life changed one day in 1997. He was with one of his friends at a gathering and they discussed an idea that involved making rubber ducks that look like celebrities. To many it may have sounded like a crazy, unrealistic idea.
To Wolfe it sounded like an opportunity.
"I was just crazy enough of a quack to try it," he said.
The result was CelebriDucks, the parent company owned 100 percent by Wolfe, a New Jersey native. Nearly 25 years after he founded the company, Wolfe said it is the largest manufacturer of rubber ducks in the world. Over time it has branched out to include various other lines, including a Parody line and The Good Ducks, which are made from food- and medical-grade items in an effort to offer a product ideal for babies and toddlers.
Furthermore, most of the products made by CelebriDucks are designed and manufactured in metro Detroit, warehoused in Akron and shipped directly from the U.S.
"We don't try to compete on price because someone overseas can always make it cheaper," Wolfe said. "But no one can match the detail and the quality that we provide. What I've also tried to do is make the point of entry difficult so any competition will clearly be of a (lesser quality)."
The process of manufacturing the ducks is extremely complex, Wolfe said. Even though CelebriDucks has manufactured "millions" of ducks over the years, every new design is sculpted by hand. Wax molds also are made and the engineering needs to be in place so that the ducks will reliably float upright. The ducks then are painted with exquisite detail and every item is available in a specially designed gift box.
"The rubber duck was invented in the U.S., but for many years all of the options in the market were made overseas in places like China," Wolfe said.
CelebriDucks' first product was a Betty Boop duck that Wolfe sent to the head of licensing for King Features Syndicate, a product licensing art of Hearst. As positive feedback came in, he slowly expanded his line of products in the late 1990s, moving on to other Hollywood legends like Charlie Chaplin. One big break came when an NBA executive with the Philadelphia 76ers read about Wolfe's fledgling business in an Atlantic City newspaper and called him about creating a duck portraying the team's star player at the time, Allen Iverson.
Soon the New York Yankees and other professional sports team also were clients, and the growth continued from there. In addition to celebrities that Wolfe and his team have created, the company regularly is called upon to manufacture ducks for customized promotional needs. Their run can be as low as 1,000, which is rare for the specialty rubber manufacturing industry given the unique detail with which each duck must be made. Among CelebriDucks' list of business clients is Harley-Davidson, Sea World, the Jersey Boys on Broadway, and countless other companies and organizations.
Yet it was not an easy process pulling it all together.
"It took a long time for us to get our feet wet and we made a lot of mistakes along the way," Wolfe said. "We really did quite a bit of refining over the years. Many of the early ducks we made didn't float right and that was (a non-starter) for me. So we had to bring in engineers to make sure they floated."
Wolfe works with professional animators, engineers, R&D people and more, which he learned was necessary to get the size, softness and textures for the ducks to an acceptable place for the market.
As far as Wolfe knows, CelebriDucks is the only rubber duck manufacturer that uses the process of blow molding rather than rotational molding, which he calls "extremely complicated, but worthwhile." Even creating a standard weight is a process that took months to streamline, Wolfe said.
Sales have remained steady even since the pandemic hit in early 2020. The cost for a single, retail duck averages around $12.99, but large single-run quantities can help per item prices fall as low as $2.50 per piece. Customers can purchase the ducks on Google, Zappos, Amazon, through selected retailers around the country, or in a variety of other ways.
Wolfe isn't always sure how his ducks sell where they do—he focuses on building the brand, creating exposure and perfecting the process. He has a team of experts that helps with sales, distribution and other functions.
"I was never good at building things, which seems funny considering how these things are made," he said with a laugh. "You couldn't get me to ever work in an office on a regular basis, so I run it from my home here in California." That is why Wolfe finds experts who are "the best at what they do" to come work for CelebriDucks, to "do what I'm not good at," he said.