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Toy Maker Lionel Emerges From Bankruptcy With Broader Plans

Toy Maker Lionel Emerges From Bankruptcy With Broader Plans

The Wall Street Journal 5/5/2008

By PATRICK FITZGERALD

Lionel LLC emerged from bankruptcy-court protection last week, ending a three-and-half-year restructuring and bitter fight with a rival model-train company. Now, the 108-year-old toy maker is poised to move out of the hobby shop and into the broader pop-culture marketplace.

One of Lionel’s model locomotives.

Chief Executive Gerald Calabrese, a former Marvel Comics executive who shepherded Lionel through bankruptcy, said in an interview that he sees the new Lionel as an entertainment company and not just a toy maker.

“The way people buy and sell things has changed dramatically since 1900,” said Mr. Calabrese. “We’re not the distribution and sales mechanism anymore, we’re the intellectual property. And that’s the major change in the outlook of this company.”

Breaking into the broader toy market is key to Lionel’s growth, said Mr. Calabrese. During the company’s stint under bankruptcy protection, sales for Lionel starter sets — kid-friendly systems that range in price from $129 to $300 — more than doubled. The company sold some 200,000 sets last year with much of that growth coming from sales at department stores and big-box retailers.

“We had virtually no sales at outlets like Target and Macy’s and FAO Schwarz when the bankruptcy started,” said Mr. Calabrese. Developing new products that appeal to children and getting them on the shelves at big retail outlets is only part of what Mr. Calabrese, who worked on Marvel’s television programming in the 1990s, calls the pop-cultural segment of the toy market. He says that in today’s marketplace, movies and television are the key drivers to sales.

“Pop-cultural sales in those outlets are driven by media, they’re driven by a movie or driven by a TV show,” Mr. Calabrese said. “The reason I came here in the first place was always to try to develop a media component of Lionel.”

But that wasn’t possible, he said, “while we were fighting for our life in bankruptcy.”

Lionel found itself in bankruptcy-court protection in November 2004, just months after Mr. Calabrese was named CEO, when a federal jury awarded rival train maker MTH Electric Trains $38.6 million in a trade-secrets dispute with Lionel. Faced with a judgment it couldn’t pay, Lionel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

An appeals court later overturned the verdict and ordered a new trial. Lionel and MTH settled their long-running fight late last year paving the way for Lionel’s exit from Chapter 11.

Despite the bankruptcy, Lionel has posted its best financial results in many decades in recent years, according to Mr. Calabrese. Last year, Lionel had pretax earnings of $10.8 million on sales of $62.2 million.

Lionel emerged from Chapter 11 with $59 million in new cash from private-equity firm Guggenheim Corporate Funding and the estate of the late Martin Davis, former chairman of Paramount Communications Inc. According to Lionel’s Chapter 11 plan, Guggenheim owns 48.6% of the new Lionel and the Davis estate has a 28.6% stake.

Rock star Neil Young, who saw his 20% stake in Lionel wiped out under the company’s Chapter 11 plan, has also joined Lionel’s ownership group. Mr. Young wasn’t initially part of the ownership of the reorganized Lionel, and Mr. Calabrese declined to say how much he invested. Mr. Calabrese, who also controlled a 15% discretionary stake under the company’s plan, said Mr. Young opted to come on board after finishing a tour earlier this year.

The 62-year-old Mr. Young is highly regarded in the model-train industry for his design and technology abilities. Mr. Young’s company Creative Trains and Lionel are partners in a joint venture called Liontech Trains LLC that is developing Lionel’s latest version of its TrainMaster control system.

Former Lionel owner Richard Kughn who bought the company from General Mills and later sold it in the 1990s to Messrs. Davis and Young is also an equity investor, Mr. Calabrese said.