Happy, Texas

Founder Jerry Sims balances manufacturing of rock-solid toys with teaching local students welding and other skills.

Photos Cassidy Burns

Now known as The Happy Toy Maker, Sims’ place in the agriculture world dates back decades.

Like many residents of Happy, Texas, Sims logged long days working in cattle and feed for the majority of his life. With access to a shop, tools, and hands-on training with his father and grandfather, Sims discovered at a young age that he had a natural talent and love for creating.

“I was always building something,” he says. “I never was good in school, but I liked building stuff.”

In the late 1990s, after his children requested toy agriculture equipment for Christmas — just like the ones they saw him operate for work — Sims acquiesced. “They wanted a processing shoot like the ones we worked cattle with. I built them a processing shoot, tub, and snake, and they liked that. For every birthday and Christmas after that, I had to keep building new things: pickups, trailers, trucks.”

Soon, indestructible steel machines filled the play areas of the family farm. Whether he really had the time for it or not, Sims found a new evening hobby on his hands. “It took a long time to get it all built, but they just liked it so much and couldn’t tear the toys up. It all just grew from there. I think it’s now been 23 years since.”

As Sims kept setting the bar a little higher on the level of sophistication his customized toys could reach, he even began building such toys for the neighboring kids in the town.

But by 2006, Sims maxed out. In congruence with suffering a collapsed lung and subsequently needing to bring his work activities indoors, he concluded it was time to create a business out of his toy-making. “I just got so many people asking for them, and it got to where I couldn’t give them all away,” says Sims.

To start, Sims took 47 sets of toy wheel corrals to a ranch rodeo to see what he could sell; naturally, he sold all 47. By the following year, the number jumped to 157, and included a line of toy pickup trucks. The momentum continued from there.

“The next Christmas, I started selling the gooseneck trailers, and it just kept getting bigger and bigger,” says Sims. “Every year, it would double. This last year, About 8,000 toys went out of my shop.”

The Happy Toy Maker’s manufacturing process remains the same, based on diligent and meticulous manual labor in a DIY setup attached to the Sims family farm. Built by his father in 1964, Sims’ 6,400 square-foot workshop now includes 31 hydraulic presses he built by hand, a plasma torch and table, and cakebox press, as well as stations for welding, grinding, assembling, and painting — the last of which is still primarily accomplished by his 80-year-old mother.

Additionally, Sims’ shop includes storage space for sheets of steel, stacks of tires, shelves of finished products ready for shipment, and a bevy of other materials required for bringing his toy-sized customized agriculture machines to life.

Lead times on customized toys in the Spring are about a week, and wait times increase as it gets closer to the Holidays. When he first began crafting toys, it took Sims roughly 30 minutes to bend steel into shape for a pickup truck; today, he has it down to 60 seconds. “You just have to get a little better at it all the time,” he says. “We’re constantly building stuff every day.”

Indestructible, educational, and fun: The Happy Toy Maker builds toys to last for generations.

Challenges: As presently constituted, The Happy Toy Maker process stretches Sims thin financially on an annual basis. Because much of his shop and equipment are DIY, he claims that banks have been reluctant to offer business loans. While this has not prevented him from carrying on as the steel toy maestro of West Texas, the lack of financial support from traditional small-business structures has resulted in a yearly recurrence of emptying out his own pockets and then some to pay for the necessary supplies.

“Nobody will finance my deal because I’ve built the hydraulic presses, and there’s not a lot of competition to sell it to, should I get into trouble,” says Sims. “I just have to run it out of my own pocket, and it gets tight — especially when you’re trying to double your output. You just really have to watch it, because there’s not a bank that’ll loan me money for it.

“If we were to go with new machines, I could finance them. But I’ve just tried not to get into any payments that way. With material costs as high as it is, it’s been really tough; you’ve gotta get into your credit cards.”

Opportunities: Coupled with jumping into the world of e-commerce, Sims sees his company’s ability to consistently create desired products as an opportunity unto itself. Case in point: At the start of the pandemic, Sims hired a social media manager to punch up his online presence; within a year, sales had actually doubled.

Though he has considered automating more of the manufacturing process, Sims is steadfast in his belief that the most consistent work is produced by hand — and has an admirable amount of trust in his process.

“If we ever have to, I guess we’ll look at a robot,” he says. “But as long as I can get people to come work with us, we’re still going to make every bit of it by hand.”

Needs: Currently, Sims has three full-time employees and five high school students that work part-time. Working at Happy Toy Maker provides requisite knowledge, hands-on training, and opportunities to develop skill sets that directly translate to careers in the agriculture world. Sims is intent upon paying better than the alternative minimum wage jobs most high schoolers are able to work.

But retaining support staff remains a consistent need for Sims. Despite acknowledging that replacing high school employees is a part of the small business life-cycle, hiring and training new employees can bog down the toy-making process. “It’s harder and harder every year to find people,” says Sims. “When people get kind of used to it, they stay for a while. But once these kids get out of high school, they want to move on. I just have to keep starting over with new ones.”