The following interview with Mike Wolf was conducted on September 6, 1997 at America's Best Train & Hobby Shoppe in Glendale Heights, Illinois. Mike was visiting this store, owned by Tony Walis, as part of a program MTH initiated to keep in touch with customers and dealers across the country. We have never published the interview before now. Many of the things discussed have been done, but it's interesting to read him relate his plans for the future and realize many of those plans have been accomplished.
On the benefits of visiting a hobby store in person:
"Products that we make are based on customer feedback. What we hear the most of. Plus from our surveys. Everything is very customer-driven, as far as what we make, features we add on it, what are some of the quality problems people are experiencing, and it's good for me to come out and hear from people what problems they may be having, because I'm not actually fixing trains or answering the phone, [this way] I can tell overseas "Look, I was at a hobby store and a customer had a particular problem, what's going on here?" and get it solved. Feedback's great."
On how the program got started:
"When we were a store we used to have our "Thursday Night Group" where people would come and discuss the hobby. They were made up of our customer base. It started out at somebody's house and then started happening at the store. We'd have speakers come in like Lionel's president at the time, or their quality control person. Jerry Williams used to come. We had Bob Weaver come in. It was obvious how important it was to talk to people in person and get feedback. We just hired three new sales people and they'll be traveling a lot, not just one-on-one with the dealers but meeting groups of customers and answering questions and getting feedback."
On the importance of maintaining a good relationship with dealers:
"The dealer is a customer also. If you don't listen to the dealer, if you don't take care of the dealers, you're not taking care of the customers. The dealers are definetely a big part of the relationship between us and our customers."
On the growth of MTH Electric Trains:
"In 1993 we began making trains on our own again. In the last two years we had 15 employees in 1993 and now we're at 50 so just in the last two years we've doubled our staff and we've built a new warehouse and we'll be moving into that so there'll be a lot more space to continue to grow."
On his stand on quality:
"Jerry Williams, when I worked for him, taught me that the customer is first and that we wanted to be the 'Sears of the toy train business'. At that time Sears, if you ever had a problem with anything, you'd take it to them and they'd never even ask you why you broke the screwdriver or whatever it was, they just gave you a new one. And we'd always say that we wanted to be the Sears of the train business. Plus I can't stand in front of somebody and sell them something I don't believe in. It's got to be quality. if it isn't, it's too embarrassing--I don;t want to be associated with it. It's not worth it. The money's good, but you've got to be proud of what you do. You've got to be happy with what you do. I'm in the gas cylinder business, we run that business with the same concepts as far as the customer first, whatever the customer wants."
On expanding the MTH product line:
"Based on the success of the Sinclair gas station, we'll continue to develop new accessories along that line. The fire station is next. Our new track line, which I believe is going to revolutionize the hobby, easy snap-together, grease won't get on the carpet, we'll have switches, remote control sections, wide-radius curves, you don't need a sheet of plywood to set it on, crossovers. And more track-side accessories. And other gauges, possibly. You know I keep looking and looking and looking and one of these days I'm going to make a step in--I don't know which direction, up or down, in another gauge."
On the concern that parts are made and available:
"We have a pretty huge inventory of parts. With each shipment of product, we get a shipment of parts for those items. In 1993, we didn't know how big we would get. It's gotten bigger than my wildest dreams! Right now we have two people who are doing computer exploded diagrams of items on the computer and Andy Edleman's in charge of that project and I've put the pressure on him that I want to see a catalog for Standard gauge and O gauge by February. I know the Standard gauge drawings are just about done, so that's a reality. He's good when you give him a deadline. It'll be good in the new building, we'll have the space to put them out on shelves properly. It's growing pains but the parts are there. They'll always be there."
On the occasional rumor that Mike is purchasing Lionel:
"I can tell you 100% there's no truth from my end. I have no contact with Lionel. Nothing. I hear rumors too. There's a lot of rumors in this business. I've never spoke to Lionel's president [Gary Moreau, at the time of this interview]. I don't know him. We're competitors."