Lionel has a storied history, and its ownership has changed several times since 1969. Who owns Lionel Trains now? The answer may surprise you.
Lionel, LLC, manufacturer of Lionel electric trains, is owned by Guggenheim Partners, who also own the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team. Rock and roller Neil Young remains affiliated with Lionel but his ownership stake is unclear.
Guggenheim and Lionel
When Lionel LLC emerged from bankruptcy in 2008, its ownership changed. From 1995 to 2008, Lionel’s parent company had been Wellspring and Associates, a company controlled by Martin Davis, the former CEO of Gulf and Western and Paramount Pictures. Neil Young held a minority stake. Davis died in 1999, but his estate continued to control Lionel through Wellspring.
After Lionel filed bankruptcy and reorganized, Guggenheim took over majority ownership, Wellspring maintained a minority interest, and Young’s stake was wiped out. Wikipedia states that Young currently owns 20% of Lionel but doesn’t cite a source.
For perspective, Lionel isn’t a huge company today. Lionel sold about $42 million worth of trains in 2007, and Guggenheim’s investment in the company amounted to $37.1 million. Lionel may have been bigger than the Dodgers in the 1950s, but Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw’s 2018 salary is only a couple of million less than Guggenheim’s investment in Lionel initially cost.
The Kughn era
In 1985, Detroit-area real estate magnate and noted Lionel collector Richard Kughn bought Lionel from cereal maker General Mills. General Mills bought up toy companies in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s as a way to diversify itself. By the mid 1980s, it was selling off these properties. Kughn ended General Mills’ experiments with manufacturing in Mexico, moved production to Detroit, and modernized the product line. Kughn died in 2019 and is generally credited with saving Lionel.
The MPC era
Lionel Corporation sold its train line to General Mills in 1969 and licensed the name. General Mills owned several other toy properties, including MPC, a company known for toy soldiers and plastic model kits. General Mills placed Lionel under MPC’s management, hoping for a synergy.
And while today’s hobbyists don’t generally hold MPC-era Lionel in high regard, the venture wasn’t completely unsuccessful. Public interest in trains was low due to the railroad industry’s own problems. The biggest market was adults buying Lionel trains for their Gen X kids because they liked trains when they were that age. And apart from changing the paint jobs, MPC was largely selling the same Lionel designs that originated in the 1940s and 50s. It wasn’t the success that Kenner found with its action figures under General Mills’ ownership, but it kept the brand alive.