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updated: 9/10/2017 8:44 AM

Constable: How Elk Grove Village company finds success with 'old' models

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  • Video: From balsa boats to Star Wars

  • Sitting at a table with Revell models that include a boat made from balsa wood and the latest "Star Wars" fighters, Lou Aguilera, vice president and general manager of Revell, says the Elk Grove Village model-maker had to evolve to stay relevant in the modern world.

      Sitting at a table with Revell models that include a boat made from balsa wood and the latest "Star Wars" fighters, Lou Aguilera, vice president and general manager of Revell, says the Elk Grove Village model-maker had to evolve to stay relevant in the modern world.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 
 

The story of how model-maker Revell became a major player in the merchandising of this December's "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" movie begins a long time ago (72 years ago) in an Elk Grove Village industrial park far, far away (if the traffic lights are against you).

"We started in 1945 with balsa wood, doing boats and airplanes," says Lou Aguilera, vice president and general manager of Revell, which advertises itself as a business "started by modelers, for modelers,"

During World War II, "we had grade-school kids building models," says Aguilera. By 1956, Boy's Life magazine suggested that 80 percent of boys built models. The models were so accurate that a Navy admiral complained in 1961 that Revell's plastic Polaris guided-missile submarine kit was the equivalent of selling classified information for $2.98, according to the Revell website. But traditional model-building soon had lots of competition for kids' attention.

"I built airplanes," says Aguilera, 47, who spent part of his childhood in Palatine. "But in the 1980s, video games were starting, Pac-Man and all that."

Detashing model parts from their plastic frames and gluing and painting with precision took time, patience and talent that proved too daunting for some kids.

"When I was a kid, you had no choice: It was glue and paint," remembers Brian Eble, 56, who lives in Naperville and now works as vice president of marketing with Hobbico, an employee-owned giant in the hobby business that includes Revell among its subsidiaries. Only the most skilled third-grader could construct a USS Missouri battleship, a Moon Ship rocket, an X-15 fighter jet, a Volkswagen Karmann Ghia or even a Frankenstein's monster from Revell's scary movies model series, and make it resemble the product pictured on the box.

The model of a "Star Wars" Heavy Assault AT-M6 Walker held by Brian Eble, left, vice president of marketing with Hobbico, stands in contrast to the old balsa wood boat model in front of Lou Aguilera, vice president and general manager of Revell, the Elk Grove Village-based model-maker that is a subsidiary of Hobbico, which sells classic and modern models.
  The model of a "Star Wars" Heavy Assault AT-M6 Walker held by Brian Eble, left, vice president of marketing with Hobbico, stands in contrast to the old balsa wood boat model in front of Lou Aguilera, vice president and general manager of Revell, the Elk Grove Village-based model-maker that is a subsidiary of Hobbico, which sells classic and modern models. - Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

And now models must compete in a world where a kid can stream entertainment on his or her cellphone screen.

"You can't even get the parents off the screen. Good luck getting kids off the screen," Eble says. Unable to beat the new world, Revell simply joined it, by making the models easier to build and linking them to whatever kids watch and play on those screens.

"This is about getting the kid to the fun faster," Eble says.

"You can build it in about 30 minutes," Aguilera says of the SnapTite Build & Play Star Wars Kylo Ren's TIE Fighter and other licensed products in the "Star Wars" line, which sell for about $20 and feature lights, laser blasts and Wookiee wails from the upcoming movie. "All of them have a sound module built into them."

Revell, the giant model-making company in Elk Grove Village, has introduced new lines of easy-to-build models that snap together. But the company still sells complicated models, such as this Millennium Falcon from "Star Wars," which has 904 pieces and generally takes months to build.
  Revell, the giant model-making company in Elk Grove Village, has introduced new lines of easy-to-build models that snap together. But the company still sells complicated models, such as this Millennium Falcon from "Star Wars," which has 904 pieces and generally takes months to build. - Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Unlike the classic, but fragile, Titanic ship model that was meant to be put together and then displayed on a shelf, builders are supposed to play with these new Revell models.

"It sparks the imagination. We're able to bring the screen to your table," says Aguilera, a graduate of the University of Illinois, where he was a freshman backup guard on the 1988-89 University of Illinois "Flying Illini" basketball team that made it the NCAA Tournament's Final Four.

The instructions to build this balsa wood boat can be daunting to kids used to getting instant gratification from their electronic devices. That's why Revell, the Elk Grove Village model-maker, branched into new models, such as these snap-together "Star Wars" fighters.
  The instructions to build this balsa wood boat can be daunting to kids used to getting instant gratification from their electronic devices. That's why Revell, the Elk Grove Village model-maker, branched into new models, such as these snap-together "Star Wars" fighters. - Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Kids as young as 4 or 5 can assemble "beginner" kits featuring characters from the computer-animated "Cars" movie series, while the "master series" kits require glue and paint and are geared to people who are willing to shell out maybe $300 for a "Star Wars" Millennium Falcon model that includes 904 pieces and might take months to complete.

Models include the "Mystery Machine" van from "Scooby-Doo," cars from the "Fast & Furious" movie series, the jet used by the band Iron Maiden on tour, the Grave Digger monster truck and even futuristic vehicles from video games, such as a Covenant Wraith from the popular "Halo" game series.

"We produce about 45 new models in a typical year, and have 400 models actively selling," Aguilera says. But the classics sell, too. The USS Arizona, sunk in the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, sells every winter.

"Every few years, we reissue them," Aguliera says.

The online store currently offers a wooden model of the Wright Flyer featuring miniature Orville and Wilbur Wright figures to go with the 1903 plane, a visible V-8 engine, a 1969 Chevy Camaro and a "Star Wars" Heavy Assault AT-M6 Walker.

"The business has survived all those technological advances," Aguliera says. "We've gone from balsa ships to planes and cars to a galaxy far, far away."

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