Lionel in the non-hobby media

Last Updated on November 25, 2018 by Dave Farquhar

Cnet took a field trip to the official Lionel repair facility and wrote a feature story about it. It’s nice to see the attention outside of the hobby press, since it’s frequently news to people that Lionel is still around in any form.

It’s also odd to see that Lionel essentially buys its own product from its overseas suppliers, then parts them out to stock its repair facility. There are no spare parts to speak of. But, come to think of it, how else would you get parts?

I can attest that prior to 2010, Lionel’s repair system being a mess. This is a good example of some outsiders coming in with outsider perspective to solve a difficult internal problem.

And as for the comment that it’s hard to imagine a company the age of Lionel not having a system like this in place years ago: It did. But that Lionel sold out in 1969 and turned itself into an operator of a chain of toy stores that survived until the early 1990s. From 1970-1985, Lionel trains were made by General Mills, the cereal company, which had diversified into toys. Don’t laugh–Quaker Oats bought Lionel rival Louis Marx right around the same time. Buying toy companies and merging their operations was a common strategy at the time, though they never achieved the synergies they expected. Then, in 1986, a hobbyist named Richard Kughn bought Lionel and tried to right what was going wrong with it. Kughn’s Lionel has changed hands a couple of times since then, and changed its philosophy from time to time to adapt to competition–including outsourcing production overseas.

But if you’re wondering why it’s been several years since you’ve seen a Lionel train set at a regular retail store, that changing strategy has a lot to do with it.

When Lionel changed hands, it generally got new management, and the old way of manufacturing and servicing the product changed. The pre-1970 Lionel manufactured its trains in New Jersey; General Mills made them in Michigan, then experimented with producing them in Mexico toward the end. Kughn moved manufacturing to Detroit, and in the 1990s, production gradually moved overseas to South Korea and China.

Each change corrected major things that were going wrong–which is why the brand continued to survive–but, inevitably, things that weren’t broken got lost too. Like the service department.

From 1970-1990, I doubt many people really missed it much. There were still a large number of service centers who could fix the trains, and many hobbyists could do their own work, or work for their friends. In the 1990s, Lionel trains became increasingly reliant on electronics. The repairs aren’t necessarily any more difficult, but require a different set of skills and, frankly, someone who is skilled at repairing a modern Lionel train stands a good chance of being able to make a better living doing something else. And since a repair frequently means swapping out a printed circuit board that was made in small quantities, repairs can be very expensive.

That’s why the repair facility in Ohio worked. Lionel found someone with the required talent who didn’t want to do anything else for a living, handed him a problem, and he ended up turning a weakness into a strength.

At any rate, Cnet’s peek behind the scenes was fun to see.

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