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Duane Hess received the mysterious phone call in 2006. "I have an opportunity for you," said the man on the other end. "Would you like to build with LEGOs as a full-time job?"
It was a ridiculous question for the Broomfield resident. Of course Hess, then an employee at a Corporate Express office-supply company, wanted to build with LEGOs as a full-time job. He'd loved LEGOs since his uncle had given him his first set when he was a toddler: "Fuel Pumper," set number 554. Growing up, he lived for birthdays and Christmas, when the tell-tale sound of bricks moving inside still-wrapped presents would signal that he'd received just what he wanted.
The child of a family that moved around a lot, Hess could rely on LEGO: the orderly way the sets' instructions would direct him to craft a model piece by piece, and then, when the creations were finished, the liberating freedom they offered when he could take them apart and build whatever he dreamed up. Unlike most adult fans of LEGO — or AFOLs, as they call themselves — Hess never went through what's known as the "dark period," the time when teenagers hide their plastic bricks in a closet, only to come back to them when they're a little older and less self-conscious. Hess kept building right on through, and was there for many of LEGO's big milestones:
The birth of minifigs and the first themed sets (space and castle) in the late 1970s. The launch of Technic advanced sets, with all their gears and axles, in 1984. The proliferation of subgenres in the 1990s, including Dragon Masters, Time Cruisers and Ice Planet 2002. And, in the 2000s, the rise of Hollywood tie-ins, from LEGO Ewoks to LEGO Hogwarts.
When he met his future wife, he warned her that wherever he went, his bricks went, too. Poking around AFOL online forums like LUGNET, he discovered he wasn't the only grownup purchasing armloads of LEGO sets from Toys 'R' Us not for his kids, but for himself. He helped found Colorado Wyoming Lego Users Group, or CoWLUG, and on sites like Flickr and Brickshelf, he posted his favorite creations — jet planes and combine harvesters and Godzilla monsters — along with detailed instructions on how to build them.
He never realized that he was creating an online resumé for very important people at LEGO — which is what led to that strange call.
Before revealing anything more about the opportunity, the LEGO rep told Hess that he had to be willing to move wherever the job required. After talking it over with his wife, Hess agreed — and then was asked to compete in a "build-off." LEGO sent him an image of a '50s sci-fi spaceship and told him he had a week to turn it into LEGO bricks.
It was a tough build, Hess remembers, with "compound curves galore." But he pulled it off and scored the gig as the first LEGO digital model designer at NetDevil's studio — which turned out to be just down the road.
"For me, it was dead-on perfect," Hess says. "Fate could not have smiled any better than this." As the company's LEGO librarian, he's now in charge of "managing the brick," keeping shelf after shelf of color-coded brick bins refilled and orderly so that employees can mine them for creative inspiration, as well as unpacking the crates that are constantly arriving from LEGO headquarters. His purview is staggering: There are simple two-stud bricks, eccentric pieces like dragon wings and rocket boosters, rare permutations that can fetch upwards of $4 a pop on gray-market online auctions (the joke is if LEGO Universe bombs, NetDevil can just sell off its LEGO loot), and many examples of Hess's favorite piece: a versatile brick with LEGO's signature nobs on five of its sides, a flamboyant example of what's known in LEGO parlance as "studs not on top," or SNOT.
Hess knows them all. He needs to, because he uses them to ensure that every LEGO asset in the game is buildable in the real world. Artists hand him concept drawings, and he re-creates them using either virtual LEGO building software on his computer or the real-world bricks at his disposal. In essence, he's a translator, taking the various ideas of the game developers and making sure they work within the sacred language of LEGO.
LEGO learned the hard way the risk of taking that language for granted. The company has been around since 1932, when a Danish carpenter named Ole Kirk Christiansen started producing toys and named the company after the Danish phrase leg godt, meaning "play well." By the early 21st century, however, LEGO was dabbling in non-brick products and suffering staggering losses. "In the early 2000s, we had some major, major problems in the company," says Hanson, LEGO's director of business development. "We tried doing many different types of businesses without aligning them with the brick. LEGO's success is all about the brick."
So the company returned to its roots. Today, all of its products, from Shrek toys to an upcoming line of board games, are based on the little building blocks that have been around for decades. And the move paid off. According to Vermont-based toy analyst Lutz Muller, LEGO now controls 75 to 80 percent of the construction-toy category, up from 40 percent six years ago. "They have been absolutely superb in their management," says Muller.