Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine
The little company
that could

Whittle Shortline Railroad follows its own track making realistic wooden toys

by Bob McEowen

Christopher Marriot, 6, plays with Whittle Shortline trains at the company’s factory store in Louisiana, Mo. The company’s two retail stores include large play areas. Christopher’s mother, Gail Marriot, traveled more than 60 miles from Clark to let her children play at the store.

The phone rarely stops ringing at Whittle Shortline Railroad, a manufacturer of wooden toy trains and trucks in Louisiana, Mo. Some calls come from worried mothers seeking safe toys for their children. Others are from stores wanting to carry the company’s products. Often, it’s reporters looking for a quote.

The surge began in June when more than a million Thomas the Tank Engine brand train toys were recalled because of lead paint — the first of several high-profile toy recalls this summer.

Attention quickly turned to Whittle Shortline, which makes “The Little Engine That Could,” a relatively unknown challenger to Thomas, a toy train manufactured in China.

Prior to the recalls, The Little Engine line had been a slow seller for Whittle Shortline Railroad, which specializes in realistic toy trains marketed to older childern. “Now Thomas has gotten his nose bloodied and we can’t make enough of them,” says company owner Mike Whitworth, who launched Whittle Shortline Railroad in his garage in 1996.

The company’s Little Engine That Could train earned national attention following a recall of some Thomas brand toys.

Like the Little Engine That Could, Whitworth’s company seems to be engaged in an impossible uphill climb against RC2, an Illinois-based corporate giant, which also markets Bob the Builder and Winnie the Pooh character toys as well as John Deere and Ertl farm toys.

The competition between the two character locomotives is actually less adversarial than it might seem. Whittle Shortline’s Little Engine toys share the same table top gauge track as Thomas trains and the two brand’s cars interchange. Just as important, the “Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends” television show fuels sales for Whittle Shortline products.

“We love Thomas,” Mike says. “He builds our market. Without Thomas, we probably would still be a little, bitty company doing 10,000 toys a year.”

Toy trains with noses on them — bloody or not — are not really what Whittle Shortline Railroad — which sells about a half million toys each year — is about, though.

Decals carefully applied to Whittle Shortline Railroad toys recreate legendary train names. This mail car recalls the Hannibal & St. Joseph line, the first mail train to operate in America.

“There is a time period where the little kid figures out that real trains don’t have faces, and then he’s going to look for something real. That’s what our niche is,” Mike says.

In fact, Whittle Shortline is the only company making wooden toys that mimic real rolling stock. With its own in-house graphics department, the company is so good at recreating railroad and truck logos that many transportation companies hire them to produce gift items and mementos.

“In our narrow niche, which is realistic American trucks and trains, we are the only player,” Mike says. “Whether you’re in San Francisco or Saratoga, if you see something that looks real and is made out of wood, it was made here.”

While the company’s products are popular with train enthusiasts, they are designed as toys and meant to be played with by children. The company sells little track, though, as typical customers already own Thomas or some other toy train. With individual cars costing $5 to $15 and “engines” averaging about $20, Whittle Shortline toys are usually added to an existing train set a piece at a time.

Mike Whitworth, left, owner of Whittle Shortline Railroad examines a strip of Maine white sap birch after Jerry Conner runs it through a router. The company, based in Louisiana, Mo., makes a half-million wooden toys each year.

Mike’s interest in trains dates to his childhood, when he used to visit his grandfather’s workplace at the terminal railroad at St. Louis’ Union Station. The company traces its origins to an electric miter saw. Mike’s wife, Pat, bought him the tool in the mid-1990s in hopes that he would install crown molding in the couple’s Kirkwood home. The saw sat unopened for two years before Pat threatened to throw it out.

“Being a male, you’re not going to turn a power tool loose even if you don’t know how to use it,” recalls Mike, a former Air Force pilot.

When he finally did get around to using his saw he didn’t make molding, but toy trains for the neighborhood children. Word of Mike’s toy trains quickly spread to merchants in Kirkwood, a St. Louis suburb named for a railroad pioneer and a town that ties its identity to a historic train depot.

Soon, demand for Mike’s toys spread far beyond Kirkwood. “A little company called Amtrak called us up and said, ‘Can you make toys for us?’”

Traditional wooden toy trains are not much more than a block of wood with oversized wheels. Amtrak required a toy that looked like its trains. Calling on his college aeronautical engineering degree, Mike designed and patented a new type of suspension that allowed toy trains to move on TT gauge track without requiring large wheels.

Whittle Shortline Railroad's retail store in Valley Park is almost always overflowing with children at play.

“Not only do our toys look real, they act real,” Mike says. “We could do things with the other guy’s track that he couldn’t do. Our trains perform better than the Thomas toys on Thomas track.”

Ironically, Mike’s smaller wheels allowed him to make toy trains that were larger, longer and more proportional to a real train. It wasn’t long before Mike’s realistic toys caught the eyes of other railroads. Mike signed licensing contracts that gave him the right to produce trains bearing the logos of nearly every railroad ever to run in America.

Recently, Whittle Shortline has branched out into trucks. The company produces licensed versions of FedEx and U.S. Postal Service trucks. It also has designed a toy tractor-trailer truck and is signing up trucking companies almost on a daily basis. A new toy school bus is being touted as a fundraising device for school districts, which can order buses bearing their own school name.

By 1999, Whittle Shortline Railroad outgrew the Whitworth’s garage and moved to the historic 1880 Frisco Hotel in Valley Park. In 2005 the company relocated its manufacturing operation to a former glove factory building in Louisiana, a Mississippi River town about an hour north of St. Louis.

Parts waiting to be assembled are boxed, waiting to be picked up by Louisiana-area, "stay-at-home moms." Much of the company's assembly work is done by part-time employees who work from their homes.

More than 35 employees work for the company, designing, manufacturing and selling more than 160 different toys. While some assembly is done in the factory, stay-at-home moms in the Louisiana area do much of the work of gluing blocks together.

Although Mike says his company pays well and provides benefits, he manages to compete against Chinese manufacturers who pay substandard wages. He survives, he says, by accepting a much lower margin on his toys than the competition. In fact, recently he actually dropped his prices to eliminate the price factor from the customer’s buying decision.

Each Whittle Shortline Railroad toy comes with a lifetime warranty. But what really separates them from the competition is the paint and detailing. Each toy receives several layers of acrylic paint, depending on its color scheme. A touch-up artist inspects each product and fixes any blemishes with a small airbrush. Decal and graphic artists skillfully apply the names that appeal to parents and grandparents who remember the railroads of lore.

“Every one of our toys gets individually hand-inspected seven times. No one has ever made this type of toy,” Mike says as he picks up a caboose and studies the detail. “You would never find that anywhere else, any time else. We’re making a very unique toy.”

Employee April Howland touches up the paint on toy school buses, which the company can personalize for local schools. One of the reasons Chinese manufacturers use lead paint is because it covers so easily, eliminating many quality control steps.

Whittle Shortline Railroad toys are sold online at the company’s Web site and through about 200 toy stores nationwide. The company also operates two retail locations. Both the factory store in Louisiana and Valley Park store feature large play tables where parents and grandparents can turn children loose.

“Anybody can come in. You don’t have to buy anything,” Mike says.

At the Valley Park store, a separate play area upstairs is reserved for birthday parties. The store hosts seven parties every weekend, 50 weekends a year. During monthly “Fun Nights” (or occassional “Fun Sundays” at Louisiana) children pay a small fee to hand paint their own toy trains, which receive wheels and couplings in the factory.

The special events and the play-friendly stores are reflections of a company philosophy to rise above expectations. With nowhere near the volume of big toy companies and lacking the cost advantages of foreign manufacturing, Whittle Shortline Railroad has to try harder to keep up with the competition.

The “I think I can” analogy that the national media has latched onto when describing the manufacturer of The Little Engine that Could toys is a fitting one, Mike says.

“Compared to everybody else in the market, we’ve got to be the smallest guy,” he says. “But we’re resilient. We’re not afraid to take somebody on.”

Ironically, Mike says he only reluctantly agreed to make the Little Engine character trains after NBC television approached them in 2006 with promises of a big promotional campaign. While toy recalls have given the Little Engine and Whittle Shortline an unexpected boost that produced at least a 50 percent increase in sales, Mike doesn’t expect the attention to last.

Hermila Cortes wears a "God bless America" shirt while sanding train cars at the Whittle Shortline factory. Following the recall of Chinese goods sold by a competitor, the company has received nationwide attention for being the only major manufacturer of wooden toy trains in America.

“Memories are short and price is always king,” Mike says. “We will get through this Christmas season with ‘Buy American,’ but after that . . . ,” Mike’s voice trails off, implying that he’s not counting on concerns over Chinese toys to ensure his success.

Instead, Mike says Whittle Shortline will focus on what it does best: producing high-quality, realistic toys based on real trains and trucks. With that formula, it’s no surprise the phone rings off the wall — even when, as happened recently, he gets a call from a Chinese company wanting to hire him.

“We’re not bragging, but when we say we make the best wooden toy trains in the world, we do,” Mike says.

For more information, contact Whittle Shortline Railroad, 600 South Main St., Louisiana, MO 63353; phone (573) 754-4033, or log onto www.woodentrain.com. The company’s Valley Park store is located at 24 Front St., near the intersection of Interstate 44 and Highway 141. For information, call (636) 861-3334.

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