On track for success

Lionel president Howard Hitchcock ’95, ’99 is leading the model train maker into the digital world
Adam Grybowski

During an internship with Johnson & Johnson in the 1990s, Howard Hitchcock ’95, ’99 discovered what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

An undergraduate studying marketing and management at Rider University, Hitchcock interned with the famed brand while it was developing new shapes and colors of its line of Reach toothbrushes. As he witnessed the company usher the new products through development, from concept to implementation, Hitchcock realized such work merged his interest in business with his desire to be creative.

Today, Hitchcock is an executive with an impressive record of building value, turning around operating losses and managing all aspects of product development. Still, he describes himself as a creative person stuck in a businessman’s body.

“Product development is my passion,” he says. “You’re always dealing with something new, and it’s a challenge every day. I find a lot of personal satisfaction in starting with a concept, working to bring it to life and finally seeing it on the shelf.”

Now the president of Lionel, Hitchcock is leading the 115-year-old model train company as it integrates its physical products into the digital world occupying so much attention today, especially young people’s. “Not that many organizations get to be this age; it’s a huge milestone,” Hitchcock says of Lionel’s anniversary. “We’re a nostalgic brand that’s very classic, and we continue to be a part of how families make memories.”

Families embraced Lionel from the very start. The company’s founder, Joshua Lionel Cowen, achieved almost immediate success when he designed his first train before the turn of the 20th century. At the time, though, his purpose wasn’t to make a toy; he thought the train would make a catchy window display for toy stores. It worked, but customers also wanted to buy Cowen’s train.

America’s fascination with trains, which budded in the 19th century as tracks were laid coast to coast, shrinking more than 2,600 miles of land for travelers, has ebbed and flowed since then, but trains continue to be a source of interest for hobbyists and others today. To feed that interest, Lionel designed a website called Lionel Tracks to be an information authority on all things trains, and it employs a writer to keep it updated daily.

“Trains almost feel like something lost in the past, but there’s a huge resurgence to bring them back and they’re still very relevant today,” Hitchcock says. “Our focus now is on how we continue to be relevant to young people.  We are embracing technology to reach these new fans, such as Lionel Battle Train, our first iPad game, and the iCab app, which provides an innovative way to operate trains from a smartphone or tablet.”

As a company that made its name in physical trains, Lionel is careful to honor its non-digital past. “Our high-end users tend to be older and more resistant to adopting new technologies,” Hitchcock says. “For them, there’s still the world of traditional control. Our products have to bridge different modes.”

Hitchcock, who’s originally from Milltown, N.J., knew business would lie at the heart of his future. He chose Rider based on his preference for small class sizes and its ability to deliver personal attention from faculty. Rider’s College of Business allowed him to indulge his desire to study business while developing his leadership qualities through student government and intellectual in-class debate.

Career Services helped Hitchcock, who earned his bachelor’s in marketing and management in 1995 and his MBA in 1999, land his first job at china maker Lenox, where fresh off of earning his undergraduate degree he worked for almost three years as an assistant product manager. Helping to develop and manage new products for the company’s Fine China Dinnerware collection, Hitchcock exercised and refined the same skills he first tapped at Johnson & Johnson.

He left Lenox to become a product manager at Waterford Crystal Giftware and Home Lighting. From there he found success launching products, increasing sales and improving the overall strategy for several companies, including the Hamilton Collection and Motorsports Authentics, where he was vice president for diecast and collectibles from 2006 to 2010. When merchandise rights for NASCAR and other racing properties were transferred to Lionel, Hitchcock joined the historic brand. He became president in 2014.

One of his proudest accomplishments at Lionel is the company’s VisionLine trains, the company’s most detailed, high-end set of products. Hitchcock challenged his team to create the most innovative steam engine in Lionel’s 115-year history. They delivered. And though it was the company’s most expensive train ever, it sold three times beyond what the company projected.

Hitchcock was heavily involved in the product decisions and marketing strategy around VisionLine, down to the final details. “For me, it’s always about the passion of developing products,” he says.

That passion is leading Lionel as it works to stay on track for a second century of success.