I Didn’t Know What I Didn’t Know

by Mike McGrattan

It’s been 14 months since I took my first tentative steps into the world of model train manufacturing and as I reflect upon those months I now see just how little I truly understood the “other side” of the hobby in which I had been an active participant for over 30 years. The view from the manufacturing side of the model railway world is quite different than I had expected it to be; not only because it’s a business (as opposed to being a hobby) but because much of what I thought I knew about our hobby turned out – not unexpectedly – to be solely from the perspective of the end user. There is, as I now know, a whole other perspective to our hobby.

From my very first day here I found myself “immersed” in the inner workings of Rapido. I think it was day three (I had just figured out where the copy paper was kept and was feeling mighty proud of myself) when Jason informed me he’s sent me 3D CAD (Computer-Aided Design) drawings of a new N scale project and that I was to review them, list corrections that needed to be made and comment on the model… by 3:00 PM.
As I reviewed the CAD drawings for the soon-to-be-released N scale GMD-1 I remember thinking two distinct thoughts: 1. Wow, I’m really in the model railway business now; 2. I had better learn something about the GMD-1 because other than its existence I know nothing about it……….. (Never fear, I took a self directed crash course…) The reason I mention this is to illustrate a central theme that keeps occurring to me about working for a small model railway company – it’s all about the people.

A very early N scale GMD-1 – the gmd-1 was my “initiation” to Rapido and the model train business.

A very early N scale GMD-1 – the GMD-1 was my “initiation” to Rapido and the model train business.

Today there are more small- and medium-sized model railway companies than ever before. These companies, run by one guy or just a handful of employees, are not only filling a niche in the market, they are moving the yard sticks in terms of offering highly detailed and never-before-available models in a myriad of scales. Name your favourite small company and I’ll wager you that what makes them special are the people that run them. I know that it’s true here at Rapido.

Jason (and I’ll get back to him in a minute) has assembled a truly special team. I know because they have been my teachers and mentors for this past year, gently – or not so gently – helping me learn the basics of this industry.

I call Dan Garcia “Yoda” (yes, he’s small like Yoda but only occasionally as green) because he seems to have a never-ending fountain of model railway wisdom to share. Dan’s knowledge and ability with regard to our products – both from a design and repair standpoint – is only exceeded by his scary brain storehouse of prototypical railway information.

Yoda is also a snappy dresser…..

Yoda is also a snappy dresser…..

Bill Schneider has the same treasure-trove-like prototype and model train knowledge like Dan. As well, his years in the industry allow him to offer astonishing perspective on the widest range of issues. In China, Colin consistently proves he is able to translate our vision, requirements and sometimes crazy requests into excellent products.

We also have the support of our bookkeeper and part-time den mother, Janet, and our friends and experts like Richard, Mark and Jakob who freely contribute their knowledge and expertise. Combine all of these ingredients and you have the makings of an exceptional team of people that are more than capable of pulling off any project we decide to tackle. That’s where Jason comes in.

Working with Jason is like riding the most wicked roller coaster imaginable. You start the ride with anticipation and excitement that builds until you hit the first big curve or dip and then you wonder what you got yourself into. That “up and down” feeling continues throughout the ride until you find yourself coasting to a stop. You are proud of your achievement, glad you stayed the course, and anxious to do it all over again. Jason’s passionate love of trains and his classic artist-like temperament and energy level is tempered by his skill as a savvy businessman. He never forgets this is a business. Indeed that was the first and most important lesson I learned. I wasn’t working in my hobby; I was working in the model train business.

Not only can he design a GMD-1, he’s a darn fine pit master too….

Not only can he design a GMD-1, he’s a darn fine pit master too….

Urban legend has it that Rapido makes what Jason needs for his Kingston Sub layout. While he obviously needs Turbos and FP9A’s and EM coaches the fact of the matter is those sell to the broader market so we make them. In fact, as I began to become involved in our product development process (a complex process of sitting in VIA train seats, drinking coffee and throwing out idea after idea until we’ve worn each other out) I learned that product decisions are made on fewer “modeller” decisions and more business decisions than most could imagine.

Should we announce product “X”? Well… What was its prototype history? How long did it run, for which roads, where did it run and for how long did they use it in that service? How many paint schemes did it have and who are the secondary owners? Can we paint it in “close enough” paint schemes or is it a one-off wackjob? What kind of detailed reference materials are available and are there any left in working condition? Can we get access to them? Has anyone made these in HO or N before and how detailed was their model? Who will this model appeal to – is there a regional market or does this have broad appeal? What “complimentary products” are on the market and what follow up products can we offer? You’ll notice that nowhere in here did we ask if Jason needs it for his layout.

I’ll wager there weren’t too many of these at Spadina in 1908…. There goes that theory…

I’ll wager there weren’t too many of these at Spadina in 1980…. There goes that theory…

You have no idea the number of calls and emails that we (and I assume other companies) get imploring us to make (fill in the blank here) model. The well-meaning modellers offering their suggestions almost always assure us that he “knows that we’ll sell a ton of them” because he knows a lot of people who would buy them. I can admit to having made similar pleas in the past.

We listen to every single one of these ideas and discuss many of them among our team but a business case has to be made for anything we even consider. The fact of the matter is that there is far less “modeller” that goes into a product decision than there is dispassionate businessman.

Someone once said that the first pill of a new wonder drug is worth one hundred million dollars, the second and the rest are worth $5.00 each. That is sort of the same situation that a model railway manufacturer faces. The costs to research, develop, produce samples, tool and manufacture a new model is staggering and is all “up front” money.

I had not fully considered the impact on a small company of a $100,000.00 development cost for a new locomotive before I watched us bring the GMD-1 to life. My collegues and I have to be paid weekly, the lights and heat have to be on and paid for, we need computers, printers, toner and paperclips and, “oh yeah” there are tooling and production costs that have to be paid for before the first model sees the light of day. A small company has to have that money in order to bring that great idea to life. Like many modellers, I always wondered why someone didn’t make “X” model because it was a sure winner. It might well be a winner but unless you have the cash to risk on developing and tooling it, the model won’t get made.

As my months at Rapido continued I began to think less like a modeller and more like a guy who makes model trains for a living. One thing I get asked quite often is whether I still like to work on my layout and models. After all, I work with model trains all day. The answer is yes; I still model whenever I can. The misconception is that we “work with model trains all day”. We run a business all day. It’s a common misconception that our days are spent surrounded by nothing but model trains.

I love to decal and weather my N scale rolling stock.

I love to decal and weather my N scale rolling stock.

Our days are spent like most people in business. We are just as encumbered by spreadsheets, order entry, billing, filing and routine office tasks as anyone. Being a small company we unload trucks when a shipment arrives (hoisting several hundred corrugated cases of locomotives doesn’t qualify as playing with trains), we package and ship orders, mail out parts and answer hundreds of requests for information by phone, fax and email. These tasks are most certainly not “playing with trains”.

Now, don’t get the impression that there are not enjoyable train-related aspects to my job. I relish the opportunity to dig into a research project about a particular car or locomotive we are considering producing. It’s a challenge to find that definitive colour reference sample, determine if an observation car used a Trane AC unit or find that perfect photo of the pilot of an FL9. Because we are all model railroaders it’s a thrill to see a project leap off the drawing board and become a reality.

A typical order entry day at a deadline……

A typical order entry day at a deadline……

When I opened the jewel case of the first decorated sample of the N scale GMD-1 I felt a level of personal pride not dissimilar to what I feel when I finish a scratchbuilt CPR passenger car. While it had been the talented team we have in China that had actually built the model I was admiring in my hand, I knew that I had played an important role in developing a model that so many N scalers would soon be enjoying.

It’s easy to get it wrong – not so easy to get it right.

It’s easy to get it wrong – not so easy to get it right.

I’ve been going to train shows since I was a child and I worked trade shows in the packaging and print industry for thirty years. As we prepared for Springfield earlier this year Dan told me that I best prepare to be exhausted by the end of the first day. As we set up he was worried that we hadn’t gotten our “supplies” yet. (Bottled water and throat lozenges) I didn’t understand what he was talking about, tired at the end of a show day, sure. But exhausted and needing Halls? I didn’t understand his concerns… until about 4:00 PM that day.

Whipping together an n scale display for Springfield.

Whipping together an n scale display for Springfield.

Working a trade show you speak with hundreds of business people who may be interested to some degree in your products. Working a train show you speak with hundreds (actually at Springfield it’s thousands) of people, many of whom are PASSIONATE about your products. They line up before you’re open to talk to you; they want to tell you everything they are doing with your products, suggest (read “lobby”) for a new product and often come back several times during the show to repeat the process. Three of you behind the table are trying to converse with 50 – 60 people at a time and you are always going from one person to the next. You’re demonstrating the new GMD-1; discussing the finer points of an Osgood Bradley coach; and trying to follow the explanation a gentleman is giving you about why his FP9A isn’t running as well as he thinks it should… all at the same time. Tired doesn’t describe it; exhausted and almost unable to speak is more accurate. It was a mixture of exhaustion and wonder that lulled me to sleep that Saturday night. I had been the guy on the “other side” of the table for the first time and it was a completely different side of the hobby than I had ever seen.

Bill, Dan and me at Springfield – an education in endurance.

Bill, Dan and me at Springfield – an education in endurance.

Working in the industry for over a year now has provided me with so many insights into the “hows and whys” of my hobby that it has had an effect on my own modelling and the way I approach the hobby. When I sit at my modelling bench I now find myself enjoying the effort and energy that I expend creating the freight car, structure or track solder joint I am working on more than I did before. I think that my understanding of how hard it is to bring a commercial model to life makes me appreciate the effort I am taking to bring my “one off’ model to fruition. Working in the industry also affects how I look at the “modelling world” as well.

Altering a “name brand” passenger car into a CN “Mount Royal Club”)

Altering a “name brand” passenger car into a CN “Mount Royal Club”)

One of the best parts of the technological age in which we live is the ability to interact with modellers around the world through a seemingly never-ending number of websites and interactive boards. The ability to share with, learn from and be inspired by other modellers has become an integral part of the hobby to many of us. Yet, working in the industry the same portals that provide modellers with such opportunities to share also exposes us to the unfiltered comments and opinions of our client base. Sometimes, that can be hard to deal with.

It wasn’t too long after I started at Rapido that Jason sat me down and explained the problem I was about to have with the internet world of trains. He told me that I would read something, probably sooner than later about Rapido, our products or some aspect of the hobby that would “get my Irish up”. I would want to reply: to explain, to defend or worse, to admonish the writer for their misinformation. And he reminded me that I really shouldn’t. Now this was coming from a guy who “tells all.” Jason – to his credit – has set the standard in this industry (in my humble opinion) for being open and honest about the workings of Rapido Trains Inc. and many aspects of the industry that seem to be considered “super secret” by many. Yet here he was telling me to refrain from commenting when our company was being unfairly portrayed… What gives?

He was, of course, right. The wonderful thing about free speech is that it allows a free discourse on any topic. The bad part is that fact and opinion, truth and falsehoods get equal airtime. As a modeller I could avail myself of my rights to free speech; as a model railway industry employee I had to self-curtail those rights. Not because I couldn’t adequately defend our interests but because there was no point in doing so; you can’t hold back the ocean with a spoon.

Jason’s approach of being open and honest about our successes and failures has been a breath of fresh air in a conservative industry. My “swinging at a bad pitch” wasn’t going to help Rapido and was only going to serve to raise my blood pressure. So, when I read someone say that we don’t deliver an N scale model because HO production bumps N or that our models are too expensive because we put plastic piping under our passenger cars I bristle… but I do it silently.

So: what do I know today that I thought I knew a year ago? Beyond the many technical and operational aspects of this industry I think there are three important lessons that I have learned. Each of these lessons illustrates why this industry has been successful for over 80 years yet serves as a cautionary tale for its future.

Our hobby is constantly changing because the modeller’s needs and expectations are changing. If scratchbuilding and kitbashing are on the decline due to the proliferation of RTR models and modellers’ busy lives stealing away the hours they have, then their desire for more and more detail and uber accurate models has increased one hundred fold. I’ve heard people wag that it takes no more time to get a model right than it does to get it wrong. Not true. “Getting it right” means painstaking research that until very recently has never been done in the mainstream segment of the industry. Research takes time, resources and people. We put untold hours into research and still, we miss things. Modellers are demanding more and better accurate models; our industry has to continue change to respond to this demand.

I remember my teenage trips to Rigby’s Hobbies in Etobicoke. The shelves were overflowing. We’d spend hours combing the shelves for cool and obscure Athearn Blue Box kits and gaudy-painted Tyco diesels. We’d dream of owning the brass Big Boys in the display cabinets.

Today’s hobby shop has far fewer models on the shelves, and might be well served by having several large touch-screen monitors alongside their model stock, all of them featuring high-resolution images of the pre-orders available. The high quality, highly detailed models being offered today will almost certainly be “made to order” and available only as limited editions. The old business model of making thousands of extra models for inventory doesn’t work any more. Firstly the models are too expensive, and secondly once a model has been out for a few weeks it is “old.” Everyone is looking forward to the next new release.

Finally, to be a successful model train company you don’t need to be large; you need to be imaginative. Did anyone think that there would be a day where there would be a RTR GMD-1 in both HO and N scale? How about an FL9, an entire model of The Canadian in all four historic liveries, and FPA-4 locomotives with road number-specific details?? The answer is no. No one could have thought this even ten years ago yet it is a reality today. It’s not the technology that makes these models possible as much as it’s the imagination and effort of guys like Jason, Dan and Bill (and now me, I suppose!).

From CAD drawing to pilot model and soon to a store near you – the N scale GMD-1.

From CAD drawing to pilot model and soon to a store near you – the N scale GMD-1.

I have come to understand that advancement in our hobby’s future is vested in the imaginative nature of its suppliers. If they refuse to believe that there are absolutes, barriers to new products, levels of quality, detail, fidelity to the prototype and ways of meeting the modellers’ needs then the sky is the limit for model railroading. There’s always going to be a cost; but if there’s a market, I believe it can be satisfied through the vision and imagination being demonstrated by an ever-increasing number of companies.

14 months into this gig and I am thrilled to say that not only am I still learning every day; I am starting to feel like I’m actually doing my little bit to advance the hobby. “Knowing” what I now know about what it takes to bring first class models to the market and having experienced the process from concept to delivering something that helps a modeller remember that “kid on Christmas day” feeling, I can’t help but feel that my appreciation for both sides of model railroading has been enhanced.

Will anyone make one of these in N scale RTR? I don’t know but today’s there’s more of a possibility than ever before!

Will anyone make one of these in N scale RTR? I don’t know but today there’s more of a possibility than ever before!

Who’d have known?