Wm. K. Walthers
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|Industry||Toys and hobbies|
|Headquarters||Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States|
|Products||Model trains and accessories|
Wm. K. Walthers, Inc., was founded in Milwaukee in 1932—though it started years earlier, when seven-year-old Bill Walthers got his first taste of the hobby with a small, wind-up toy train for Christmas. He continued with the hobby and eventually had an attic layout composed primarily of his own scratch-built creations. After he wrote a series of articles on building train control and signaling systems, he got so many letters from other modelers that he began manufacturing them. The first ad (in the May issue of The Model Maker) offered a 24-page, 15¢ catalog that listed rail, couplers, and electrical supplies. Sales were over US$500.00 for the first year. By 1935, the catalogs were over 80 pages.
Within five years, Walthers had grown so much that larger quarters were needed. Space was found on Erie Street, where everything—from milled wood parts to metal castings to decals—was made in-house. 1937 also saw a new line in HO Scale, featured in its own catalog. Bill brought operating layouts to the 1939 World's Fair, which gave the hobby a big boost. Soon, though, the growing possibility of war overshadowed these successes, and supplies were becoming increasingly difficult to obtain.
The next twenty years brought great change. In 1958, Bill retired and his son Bruce took over. Just as full-size railroads were being hard-hit by new technology, so too were model railroads. Leisure time was spent in front of the TV set, not the train set. In 1960, Walthers became a full-line distributor of other manufacturers' products while continuing expansion of the Walthers lines. By the start of the 1970s, business was booming again, and Bruce's son Phil joined the company.
Acquisitions, expansions and vertical integration
Expansion and diversification continue under Phil's tenure. The establishment of the Walthers Importing Division added several international lines. The company made agreements with several European companies to become the exclusive North American distributor for many famous European brands.
The manufacturing plant was modernized. Code 83 track was introduced in 1985, giving layouts more realistic proportions. In 1990, the Cornerstone Series buildings were unveiled. Combining a freight car with a related industry, the Cornerstone Series makes it possible for modelers to duplicate authentic operations, enhancing layout realism. The Train Line Deluxe Sets and locomotives debuted in 1994. These sets feature the detailing of serious models and an affordable price—allowing newcomers to get started, and then build-on to their first set, rather than replacing it.
In 2005, Walthers purchased Life-Like from Lifoam Industries. With this purchase Walthers acquired the Proto Lines that have become the backbone of their locomotive and rolling stock segments. The Proto 2000 line allowed Walthers to start offering its full passenger train subscription sets with all in-house products. These sets have become some of Walthers' most recognized marketing tools and have recently been adopted by several of their competitors.
In recent years, changes in American retailing have hit the hobby industry particularly hard. Many[who?] have blamed companies like Walthers that have become increasingly vertically integrated with putting many of the small suppliers and Local Hobby Shops out of business. However, the retail trends were more the result of the evolution of mail-order into on-line retailing and less from direct marketing by distributors. The large distributors like Walthers and Horizon Hobby started on-line shopping sites more as a response to large internet retailers bypassing traditional distribution chains. Walthers and Horizon have both made efforts to protect their network of small local retailers by using MSRP on most products on their websites which allow the small retailers to remain price competitive.
Walthers is a large manufacturer and distributor of model trains. As of the company itself, it produces mostly HO scale locomotives, and rolling stock. Walthers is also considered the main manufacturer of passenger cars from the 1930s to the present.
- Walthers, W. K., "Data and Price Book for Model Railroaders" (1935?). See also Walthers, W. K., "The Model Railroad Data and Price Book" (1935?) which may be an even earlier catalog. The former states that the 1934 bound volume of Model Railroader is available while the latter simple says back issues for 1934 are available.