Ronald Saypol dies at 85; led model-train maker Lionel into retailing

Ronald Saypol, who led Lionel away from toy trains, dies at 85

Ronald Saypol, who transformed Lionel Corp., the biggest U.S. maker of electric model trains, into a toy retailer that years later went bankrupt, has died. He was 85.

He died Nov. 28 at a nursing home in Jackson, Wyo., after several years of ill health, said his partner, Florence Lemle.

Starting in 1968 when he was named chief executive, Saypol reengineered New York-based Lionel, which had made model trains since 1900, into a toy retailer with 105 outlets.

The company’s Lionel Leisure Inc. division, doing business in regional chains, trailed only Toys R’ Us Inc. as the nation’s largest toy retailer, the Los Angeles Times reported in 1981.

In 1969, Saypol licensed the brand to General Mills Inc., which spruced up model-train designs and increased the marketing budget, sparking a sales surge, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Over the next three years, while newly focused on retailing, Lionel’s annual revenue more than doubled to $80.1 million, the New York Times reported in 1973.

“Our retail stores probably sold more of these trains last year than Lionel did in the last four years we were making them,” Saypol told the New York Times.

By the early 1980s, the company’s fortunes had changed. Hobbled by debt from acquisitions and hurt by a poor 1981 Christmas retail season, Lionel declared bankruptcy in February 1982. Saypol and another top manager resigned.

Ronald Dietz Saypol was born Nov. 12, 1929, in Manhattan, Lemle said. His father, Irving Saypol, was a justice on the New York state Supreme Court who previously served as federal prosecutor in the espionage conspiracy trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. His mother, the former Adele Kaplan, was an attorney.

He graduated in 1951 from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., where he majored in English. The same year he was married to Cynthia Otis, an heir to Lionel founder Joshua Lionel Cowen. Saypol started working at the company as an assistant salesman while attending Brooklyn Law School, where he graduated in 1955, according to the school. He stayed on at Lionel, rising to vice president for operations, until leaving in 1962.

By 1968, the company’s sales and earnings had stagnated. Saypol, then a vice president at Deluxe Topper Corp., a New Jersey-based toymaker, decided to return to Lionel.

His first project was to exit the toy train business.

“The Lionel name was undoubtedly the greatest asset,” he told the New York Times in 1972.

Lionel emerged from bankruptcy in 1983 shorn of its non-retail businesses only to declare bankruptcy again and liquidate in 1993.

In 1986, Detroit real estate developer Richard Kughn acquired the Lionel brand and continued making toy trains. The line is still popular with children and collectors.

Saypol, long enamored with hunting in Wyoming, established himself in Jackson as a real estate developer. Among his projects was Seven-Mile River Ranch, a 3,200-acre tract on the Green River designed as a high-end haven for fly fishermen.

In addition to Lemle, his survivors include two daughters from his marriage to Otis, Cathy Saypol and Amy Tompkins; and two children from his second marriage, to Wendy Cox, daughter Natasha Saypol and son Ronald Dietz Saypol, known as R.D.

Miller writes for Bloomberg News.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times