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Biblical beanbag bears a bonanza for company

by Linda Hiller

And to think it all started with a bag of beans.

Eight months ago, Gene Jackson, Jim Sawyer and John Meyers squeezed into a trailer to start what they thought would be a great business – beanbag bears representing characters in the Bible.

The business idea was actually Jackson’s, in response to a need he saw in the marketplace, coupled with a desire to help provide a friendly, non-threatening way for families to teach their children and grandchildren about the Bible.

And so, they said, let there be Biblical plush toys – Legends of the Faith Bears.

After brainstorming the product and securing a manufacturer in China, the three men – Jackson, Sawyer and Meyers – hit the phone lines, offering their Bible bears to stores across the United States. From the start, sales were “heavenly.”

“The word spread so fast,” said Sawyer, the company’s general manager. “We couldn’t believe how fast it grew. We can barely keep up with orders, and now we’ve signed an agreement with a distributor in Northern Ireland, and I just got an inquiry from South Africa. It’s amazing.”

– The bears. The first bear that came out of the brainstorming was a white bear with “Jesus loves me” on its chest. The product line quickly grew to include 12 nine-inch bean bag bear characters from the Old Testament – Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses and eight others, and 12 characters from the New Testament – Joseph, Mary, the Good Samaritan, John the Baptist and eight others. There are also two-piece sets including David and a 12-inch Goliath, Adam and Eve, Joshua and Caleb, and more. In all, 46 different Bible beanbag bears are available.

– One wild ride. Curtis Cotter, 47, who recently joined the company as director of marketing, has worked for much larger companies in his career – Disney, Stroh’s Beer and KTVN Channel 2 News in Reno, to name a few – but said his stint at Legends of the Faith is, so far, the highlight.

“This has been the wildest and most enjoyable five weeks of my career,” he said. “Ever since I got here, it’s been a wild ride just trying to keep up. I had a dream the other night that I was standing in front of this huge ocean wave, just trying to hold it back.”

Cotter, the father of a 10-year-old daughter, Casey, said the bears make it possible to talk to children about characters and stories in the Bible in a casual, fun way.

“These are toys designed to break down the walls, giving parents and grandparents the opportunity to talk to children about the Bible in a friendly way,” he said. “And, this is just the beginning – we have four more product lines we’re working on.”

– New releases announced today. Sawyer, 45, said new product lines will be announced today, including three new colors of the “Jesus loves me” bear, a smaller 4-inch white “Jesus loves me” bear (now sold with a keychain attached), a “LLJD” series, representing “live like Jesus did,” and a thank-you bear.

Legends of the Faith is a tax-paying, for-profit company, owned by Gene Jackson. His brother, John Jackson, is the pastor and founder of the 2-year-old Carson Valley Christian Center in Johnson Lane.

In less than a year, the Legends of the Faith staff has grown to 15 employees and there are already more than 1,500 dealers in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. The marketing, processing and shipping is all done at the Meridian Park location near the Minden-Tahoe Airport.

“We’ll outgrow this place in year, I predict,” Cotter said. Within a year, I see us as a multi-million dollar company with several different products, and it all started with a bag of beans.”

The company has recently registered its trademark, Toys that Teach , and will be marketing under that name. The Bible bears are available in stores, not on the Internet. Locally, customers may go to Sagers Ceramics in Gardnerville, The Manger and the Collector’s Den, both in Carson City.

Bears are available for fund-raisers for schools or churches, Sawyer said. For more information, call 782-2506 or visit the Web site, legends of faith.com.