The latest issue of Amazing Figure Modeler includes a profile I wrote about George Stephenson, who was one of the founders of the classic garage-kit company GEOmetric Design. George now owns Black Heart Enterprises and remains one of the most ambitious producers in the business.
What follows is an account of what George refers to as the “vinyl wars,” a period in GEO’s run in which the company’s success with vinyl model kits inspired larger competitors to get involved in the market … and ruin it.
In 1992, GEOmetric Design’s owners – George Stephenson, Mark Pasin and Lynn Suilmann – decided to pursue a license to produce figures based on the syndicated television series Star Trek: The Next Generation.
“This is how naïve we were,” George said. “We actually thought we could get an affordable license and actually put out kits and make some money.”
It worked out. They contacted Paramount and managed to negotiate a reasonable three-year license. “We just couldn’t believe it,” George said.
Now GEOmetric’s owners had to figure out how they were going to produce model kits that would probably be in high demand, selling in the thousands instead of a couple hundred. Resin kits are difficult to produce and sell in great numbers, particularly because they are cast in silicone rubber molds that degrade and fall apart after a few dozen castings.
Screamin’, Billiken, Horizon Original and others were manufacturing model kits in vinyl, which used durable metal molds. GEO’s owners decided that was the way to go, but then had to determine how they could get that done.
The most obvious solution was to have the kits manufactured by Pulse Plastics in New York, the company that made kits for Screamin’ and other companies. George didn’t want to do that because Pulse’s method – called rotational molding – had too many limitations for the kind of kits he envisioned. The method was fine for the large-scale figures Screamin’ offered, but George believed another method, slush molding, would deliver superior results.
They could not find any factory in the United States to slush mold GEO’s kits, so GEO’s owners turned their focus to Japan. A variety of hobby companies were slush molding vinyl model kits there, including Horizon, Billiken, Kaiyodo, Tsukuda and Max Factory. They hired Reggie Boyle, a consultant who connected small U.S. businesses with Japanese companies.
Reggie approached the Japanese companies but they weren’t interested. George, particularly impressed with Max Factory’s Cyber Future Ninja figure, asked Reggie to approach that company again, and Reggie was again rejected. The owner, Makoto “Max” Watanabe, was emphatic.
The clock was ticking on that three-year Trek license. Mark and Lynn put their feet down, telling George it was time to go with Pulse Plastics.
“I remember that day, because when we had the conversation was on a conference call and I was in my law office, in private practice, and it just totally bummed me out and I remember walking out of the conference room just bummed.”
If this was the way it had to be, he thought, he’d rather not move forward at all.
“I get to my office and my phone rings and I pick it up and it’s Reggie, my consultant. I said, ‘Hey, Reggie, what’s up?’ He goes, ‘George, you aren’t going to believe this.’ He said, ‘I talked to Max today.’ I go, ‘Really?’ He goes, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘He’s in! He’s fired up about working with you!’ I go, ‘Seriously?’ He goes, ‘Yeah! He’s all over it!’ I said, ‘What happened?’ He said, “Max is a Trekkie!’” George laughed at the memory. “Sometimes,” he said, “it’s better to be lucky than to be good.”
Things were rolling for GEOmetric Design. The Star Trek kits – vinyl, 1/6 scale – went on the market and sold well. George traveled to Japan to be trained in vinyl production at Max Factory, where he learned the process and took photos.
“Max knew that we eventually wanted to have our own vinyl production in the U.S. so he allowed me to go into the facility and to record everything. And I brought it back and who did I go to when I came back? Mike Berglund and MNFX.”
MNFX (pronounced “minnifex”) still operates in the Twin Cities, although Michael Berglund has retired from the company. He said George found MNFX by looking under “special effects” in the Yellow Pages, and some of GEO’s silicone molding and resin casting was done there. George showed MNFX the Max Factory operation.
“He had taken a bunch of pictures of the rigs over in Japan and said these are not really complicated machines, they’re just big industrial vats kind of thing.”
MNFX bought used industrial kitchen equipment, stainless steel sinks and shelves, that kind of thing, and turned them into a vinyl production facility.
It was around this time that George’s strong working relationship with sculptor Joe Simon began. GEOmetric had marketed its first two or three vinyl Trek kits when Steve Parke – a former AFM writer – got in touch. He was an art director for Prince and was exploring the possibility of GEOmetric marketing a bust of the Minneapolis-based musician.
“He came to our shop, saw our Trek kits and flipped,” George said. It was the start of a friendship and business relationship that saw Steve doing artwork for GEOmetric and for Black Heart.
Joe, in his mid-twenties at the time, also worked for Prince, painting murals, but was looking to make a change. He’d started “messing around with clay and stuff.” Steve told him about GEOmetric and Joe got in touch, asking if he could work as an intern, doing whatever was asked of him while he learned the business.
“I showed him sculptures done by some of the top guys in the hobby, showed him molding and casting and watched him experiment with sculpting,” George said. “I critiqued his sculpting and watched him improve. He asked if we’d be interested in him sculpting something for us and if we didn’t think it was good enough, no problem. I couple of weeks later, I came to the shop and he had a quarter-scale bust hidden on a work bench. It was Blacula. I could hardly believe he had sculpted it. Really nicely done. Then he picked up another little something that he’d hidden on a shelf and showed it to me. It was the Morlock from The Time Machine; I was absolutely blown away. That was the start and now he has done more sculptures for me (GEOmetric and Black Heart) than any other artist.”
This working relationship continues despite Joe’s move to the area of Bangkok, Thailand, almost two decades ago.
“George is a person that had faith in me and gave me a little more faith in myself,” Joe said. “He even took me to my first WonderFest.” Joe described that trek to Louisville, Ky., as wonderfully intimidating and inspirational. It is thanks to George’s interest and effort, Joe said, that his life’s work exists. “Because I had never planned on having a career as a sculptor, believe it or not.”
The Trek kits were a success and other vinyl efforts followed, including a variety of movie monsters sculpted by some of the hobby’s best-known artists. But by 1998 GEOmetric was entirely under George’s control. Mark Pasin went first. Still in Chicago and working for Radio Flyer, the Pasin family business, Mark found it too difficult to stay involved so George bought out his share of the company around 1995.
Thanks to GEO’s initial success, George stepped away from practicing law from 1993 to ’97. He returned to working as a prosecutor for a municipality part-time in 1997 while he battled to continue running GEOmetric.
“Money was tight then,” he said, “because the hobby industry went through just some really tough times, man. Hobby stores were closing all over the place and the distributors started closing and people were into personal computers and video games, consoles, and all of a sudden people weren’t as into building and painting model kits.”
GEO had been participating in the IHobby Expo in Chicago, where George connected with people from a variety of hobby companies.
“We learned a lot about the hobby business and we started picking up distributors for our Star Trek stuff, and we made a killing the first couple of years,” he said. That changed in 1997, when GEO’s distributors pointed toward the AMT/ERTL booth.
“They have Star Trek figures just like yours.”
George checked it out and saw mockups of the boxes for three Trek kits – Capt. Kirk, Mister Spock and Dr. McCoy, all from the original series – that AMT/ERTL was preparing to introduce, in vinyl, at 1/6 scale, the same as the GEOmetric Next Generation kits. These new kits would be priced at $19.99, obviously much less than the $49.99 of GEOmetric’s kits. All three were sculpted by Thomas Kuntz, who had worked on GEO’s kits.
Distributors felt that AMT’s pricing would give customers the impression GEO’s kits were a ripoff, George said, and so GEO’s orders plummeted. “It knocked the hell out of us.” But all people had seen so far was the boxes, not the kits themselves. Which, George said (and many hobbyists agreed), were “garbage.”
The following year, distributors acknowledged they’d made a mistake, the AMT kits were not the equal of GEOmetric’s. “I said, ‘Well, I guess that means you’re going to be placing more orders with us, right?’” But no, George said, they weren’t, because AMT had wrecked the market for everyone.
Meanwhile, Revell was entering production of vinyl models, including kits based on Batman Forever, The Relic and Dragonheart. Revell’s representatives spoke with GEO about possible collaborations but little actually came together. Revell ended up having production of its vinyl kits done in China, and got into it expecting to sell tens of thousands.
Neither Revell nor AMT-ERTL sold more than a fraction of the vinyl models they expected, so they got out of the business. They were big enough to weather the losses, but GEOmetric Design was struggling. To make things worse, recasters were cutting into GEO’s sales and the studios who’d sold GEO licenses for kits were doing nothing to help the company protect its products. Paramount – which had sold that Next Generation license – had undermined GEO ever since, dragging its feet on approving kit designs, trying to change the terms of the deal and putting competing companies with deeper pockets in contact with people who’d worked for GEOmetric.
George and Lynn Suilmann were barely paying themselves. Lynn was engaged and decided it was time to find a job with a stable salary. He wanted to shut down GEOmetric Design.
“Can’t do that,” said George, who had taken out a Small Business Administration loan to pay for the company’s space, the vinyl equipment and licenses. He’d used his house as collateral and couldn’t give up. They worked out a deal that allowed Lynn to leave in fall 1998.
“Then it was just me,” George said. Just him in charge of the company, working himself ragged trying to do that and also keep up with his legal career.