09.05.2022 "30 years of PIKO Spielwaren GmbH"

In 2022, PIKO Spielwaren GmbH celebrates a special anniversary. On 01 May 2022, it will be exactly 30 years since company boss Dr. René F. Wilfer and his wife, Ortrun D. Wilfer, entered their company in the Sonneberg district of Oberlind as owners for the first time. On that day three decades ago, the company was still far from being one of the most important manufacturers of model railways in the world.

Time to look back over our shoulder and review the developments of the past years.

"How strangely the paths of life cross!" (Hans Christian Andersen)

As early as 1949, the "Pico Express" was presented to the public at the Leipzig Autumn Fair. This was an H0 gauge model that was produced in Chemnitz, in the former GDR. Only three years later, production was moved to Sonneberg in Thuringia, where it is still located today. But not only the location, also the name underwent a change and "Pico" became "PIKO" (PIonier-KOnstruktion). Ten years later, the name "PIKO" appeared for the first time in the company's name as VEB PIKO Sonneberg, which was incorporated into the "Kombinat Spielwaren Sonneberg" in 1981. With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the end as VEB PIKO Sonneberg and the change of name to PIKO GmbH Sonneberg. This was initiated by the Treuhand-Anstalt Berlin, which was founded after the fall of the Wall.

Also in the autumn of 1949, René F. Wilfer saw the light of day and had no idea that this was already his first connection to the PIKO model railway. This became stronger and stronger in the following years and he was already interested in model railways at a young age. His wish was to manufacture model trains himself one day - a wish that fate would fulfil a few years later.

The step into self-employment

At the beginning of the 1990s, the takeover of the former Volkseigene Betrieb VEB PIKO Sonneberg by the Treuhand-Anstalt (privatisation agency) almost meant the end for the tradition-rich company. But things turned out differently.

After the fall of the Wall, Dr René F. Wilfer and his wife Ortrun D. Wilfer visited companies in the former GDR to get to know the prevailing business structures and processes there. Both had already been successful in the model railway business for several years and so their path also led them to PIKO in Sonneberg, among others. In 1991, the Wilfer couple twice visited the premises of the company, which at that time employed over 800 people. However, the conditions presented for a possible acquisition of the company did not initially arouse any increased interest in buying.

However, the tide was to turn at the Nuremberg Toy Fair in 1992. The then supervisory board of PIKO GmbH Sonneberg approached Dr. René F. Wilfer with a request to reconsider the possibility of buying PIKO. Due to the Treuhand administration, the number of employees had been significantly reduced to about 250 and a sale was imminent.

His childhood wish to set up his own production company in the toy or hobby sector was shared by his wife Ortrun D. Wilfer. Wilfer. After a few discussions with banker friends and a number of ideas in his suitcase, Dr Wilfer finally decided to turn his dream into reality. In April 1992, he founded PIKO Spielwaren GmbH, which then made an offer to the Treuhand-Anstalt to take over the entire toy and model railway production area, the mould making and the production facilities. This was followed by protracted negotiations which culminated on 30 April 1992. Although some last-minute conditions imposed by the Treuhand almost caused the conclusion of the contract to fail, the contracting parties signed the contract five minutes to twelve.

The way to the top

On the morning of 1 May, Dr Wilfer and his wife visited "their company" for the first time. Thanks to the holiday, they were able to visit the premises alone and at their leisure and get an overview of the initial situation. While the production facilities were in a rather poor condition, the administration shone with state-of-the-art equipment. After this first impression, the official handover of the keys followed on Monday, 04 May 1992. On the same day, the first department head meeting and the first works meeting under the new management also took place. Here the new owners presented their long-term concept for the company and succeeded in winning the trust of the "employees of the first hour" and maintaining it in the long term.

In the early years, the existing organisational structure was broken up and new management behaviour was established. The focus of entrepreneurial action was increasingly placed on the continuous increase of model quality. In order to realise this goal in the long term, a number of investments were necessary due to the nature of the production facilities. First, the premises were renovated and new machines were purchased for the plastic injection moulding shop. The development department received a state-of-the-art CAD system with 3D function, which further improved the already quite high technological level of mould making. The pad printing shop and the paint spraying shop were also modernised in order to improve quality. As a result of the changed company structures, the departments moved closer together, not only in a figurative sense, which ultimately also made the operational processes more efficient. Always accompanied by the support of his employees, Dr. René F. Wilfer succeeded in this way in turning the severely run-down business into a company that is today one of the most important manufacturers of model railways in H0, G, TT and N scale worldwide.

Tradition meets innovation

Already in the first years, the company under the management of Dr. René F. Wilfer inspired many model railway enthusiasts with interesting novelties. These included the model of the BR 82 and the articulated tank car, both of which received the "Model of the Year 1995" award. This innovative strength, coupled with above-average quality standards, has been maintained by the company over the past 30 years. Because of this, one can rightly claim today that the traditional company PIKO has made innovative action a part of its own personality.

At the beginning of each calendar year, Dr. René F. Wilfer presents the new products that PIKO fans can look forward to in the following months. For the anniversary year 2022 alone, the company has announced over 400 new products, including seven completely newly designed locomotives and two newly designed cars in the H0 range. Two newly developed locomotives will be released in N scale, another in TT and garden railway enthusiasts can look forward to a newly developed locomotive and two newly designed carriages.

Models from one source

The entire value chain at PIKO has always been under one roof. Dr Wilfer recognised this as a decisive competitive advantage as early as 1992. Against this background, it seems unsurprising that the company boss still strives to maintain this advantage to this day.

Unlike other model railway manufacturers on the market, PIKO has therefore had its own factory in Chashan in the province of Guangdong in China since 2006, where over 450 people are employed. The majority of the locomotive and wagon models in H0, TT and N scale are manufactured there. The production of the larger garden railway models, on the other hand, has remained at the Sonneberg site over the years, where currently about 175 employees work in development, production and administration. Thanks to the company's own production in the Far East, the company can ensure its competitiveness against the products of the competition and, at the same time, meet its own quality standards by means of regular visits by the company boss to Chashan.

In the area of digitisation of models, the company has also been taking a different path than some of its competitors for a few years now. In the past, PIKO also bought in digital decoders, but since 2015 the company has had its own electronics department. The goal was and is to become independent of the developments on the market as well as the reaction times of the suppliers. The first result of this decision was not long in coming and the company presented the H0 measuring car at the 2017 Toy Fair, which is still an integral part of the H0 range today. It is an instrument that can be used to measure not only the speed and the distance covered by the train, but also the gradient and inclination of the tracks on the layout. The success proved PIKO right and so for the anniversary year 2022 corresponding car models are planned in the TT and G tracks.

Another milestone is the digital decoder family of "PIKO SmartDecoder XP 5.1", which was developed entirely in-house and will be presented in 2022. The development includes digital decoders with and without sound and offers a digitisation option for models in all track sizes offered by the company.

One company for all target groups

An optimally functioning miniature of the prototype, perfectly designed down to the last detail, which gives its owner pleasure over a long period of time - the company boss sets high standards for his models. It is very important to him that they are not only affordable for a well-filled wallet. PIKO models should be available for everyone who enjoys the model railway hobby or would like to discover it. For this reason, the company presents new starter sets every year, which contain everything you need to get your first railway up and running in your living room or garden at home. The tracks and models can be universally combined with the entire range of the corresponding gauge. In the H0 range, PIKO also offers its customers various model segments that address the different demands of beginners, long-time model railway enthusiasts and collectors. The price-performance level of the models is recognised as being high across all segments.

A look forward

The past 2 years as well as current developments increasingly posed challenges to the whole world and thus not least to the PIKO company. Supply chains have been disrupted or have collapsed completely, the transport of goods has been restricted and is taking more and more time, and last but not least, tensions in international relations have increased. Nevertheless, the company is looking positively into the future.

Model railways offer a haven of peace for many who want to escape the hectic pace of everyday life and immerse themselves in other worlds. PIKO is doing its part to sustainably supply this oasis with fresh ideas and interesting, high-quality and durable products. The company is well prepared for this.