When Lionel LLC President Howard Hitchcock hopped aboard the company in 2010, he already knew something about the responsibility that comes with working for beloved brands. He began his career with Lenox China and then moved into the world of collectibles with Waterford Crystal and the Hamilton Collection, known for its figurines.
He was even part of the Waterford team that was tasked with creating the Waterford Crystal New Year’s Eve Ball that was dropped in Times Square to ring in the new millennium. “When I look at products, I am really very interested in how they are made and what the process is,” Hitchcock says. “That is my passion.”
Hitchcock actually discovered his passion while interning with Johnson & Johnson in the 1990s. He was working in the consumer products development labs, and on the Reach toothbrush, in particular. “There was a restaging of the brand,” Hitchcock recalls. “We were experimenting with different molds and colors, but the manufacturing aspect was super interesting to me.”
As he got deeper into the product, he discovered his passion. “The process was so interesting to me,” he recalls. “I was really fascinated with the manufacturing aspect and learning how to bring a product to life.”
117 Years Young
Since becoming president of Lionel in 2014, Hitchcock has used many of the tools he picked up throughout his career. One of the most important of those is learning to understand consumer behavior. “That has really been some lionelof my best training,” Hitchcock says. “And how important and nuanced it can be.”
When he joined the company in 2010 he was working on the NASCAR die cast collectibles division, known as Lionel Racing. Eventually, he was appointed to oversee both the train and NASCAR sides, and he became president in 2014.
As president, Hitchcock found himself in a unique spot. The company was 114 years old and truly loved by model train enthusiasts everywhere. Yet, if it was going to thrive and have a successful future, modernizing adjustments had to be made. “In many ways, a lot has changed over the past few years,” Hitchcock says. “We’re 117 years old but in some ways we are a three- to four-year-old company.”
Indeed, Lionel’s transformation has included everything from the modernizing of its manufacturing process to increasing innovation to integrating Bluetooth functionality. Like any other manufacturer, Lionel had to enter the digital age.
One of the first things Lionel did under Hitchcock’s leadership was launch its own Bluetooth app, the LionChief. It is a platform that gives model train enthusiasts the ability to control their trains via an iOS device.
The creation of the app is a simple response to a culture where kids love having devices in their hands. “I always think back to Atari, which I loved,” Hitchcock says. “If you think of that, it really changed the play pattern of kids. It became really important for them to have a device in their hand. This new app is a way to get the train onto the device.”
The app gives users full remote control, meaning users can not only adjust the speed of the trains, but also the loudness of the horns and bells. Importantly, the app can be used with both starter sets and more advanced models. “You can, for the first time, use the app with our $200 trains all the way up to our $2,500 trains through this interface,” Hitchcock notes, “which means a user does not have to discard his starter train as he moves up the chain.”
In addition to modernizing Lionel’s appeal for the modern hobbyist, Hitchcock also realized that Lionel needed to connect with a wider audience in different ways. He thus began an expansive licensing campaign, and the results have been noticeable.
A classic example is The Polar Express train from the beloved 2004 film. “By attaching our train to a movie with a built-in audience is such a natural fit,” Hitchcock explains. “Now, no Christmas is complete without a Lionel train under the tree.”
Licensing for Lionel trains is actually nothing new. The practice dates back to Walt Disney’s love of trains. In 1934, when Lionel was struggling during the great depression, Disney approached Lionel with an idea: A Mickey and Minnie wind-up handcar. The handcar was a huge success and Lionel has since gone on to build many Disney-themed trains, including many present-day models.
“Licensing has really been a great tool for us to reach a diverse audience,” Hitchcock explains. “And we really only partner with the strongest licenses, so it’s really cool to have that.” Popular names such as DC Comics and even Coca-Cola can be found on Lionel trains.
Improving The Process
While Hitchcock’s job may sound like a train enthusiast’s dream come true, Lionel is still, at the end of the day, a manufacturer, which means it faces the same concerns and challenges as any manufacturer. And that includes managing the cost of labor.
After offshoring a bulk of its manufacturing process to China, Hitchcock in recent years has discovered that it provides increased flexibility to produce domestically for certain items. “Here we have a quintessential American brand that went through all the pains of offshoring,” Hitchcock notes. “And now we are able to bring back some of that American heritage into our very own facility in NC. It is nice to see that come full circle.”
And it isn’t just the return of jobs. Through a new partnership with Blue Ridge Industries, a Virginia-based company, Lionel has greatly expanded its painting capabilities, which is a key step in producing train cars. “Honestly, it is more of an artisan-type of manufacturing with highly detailed work,” Hitchcock says. “It’s not uncommon for us to do small run sizes.”
The painting capabilities have also enhanced a key component of Lionel: the ability to produce trains with customized messages on them. Lionel customers also have the ability to log on to Lionel’s website and design their own “personalized train cars,” which is another way for the company to connect with a broader audience.
The Next Century
Despite its success, Lionel has managed to stay at a consistent size where it can still deliver high-quality work, yet there are always plans to expand the brand’s presence. “There are several directions we could go,” Hitchcock notes. “We can readily expand to other [track] gauges and have even thought of producing [smaller] HO scale trains.” Hitchcock adds that Lionel is always looking at increasing its licensing channels as well as international expansion.
Regardless of how it chooses to expand, Hitchcock and his team have positioned Lionel for another century of success that its founder Joshua Lionel Cowen would be pleased with. “Honestly, I’m really proud of the team we have built here at Lionel,” Hitchcock says. “We have taken a cherished, 117-year-old classic American brand and given it a future.”