Author Topic: Inside Wingnut Wings - what went wrong within the dream model company?  (Read 65026 times)

Online Dave W

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Inside Wingnut Wings – what went wrong within the dream model company?

By Dave Wilson

On Sunday March 22 the staff at Wingnut Wings’ office in Wellington, NZ, received a phone call telling them not to go to into work the following day. They did not know it then but their jobs had just evaporated.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister was implementing a nationwide lockdown to combat the global coronavirus pandemic and the eight staff at Wingnuts’ Miramar office assumed they would be working from home.

A few days later they knew the truth. Staff received a phone call followed by an email from Wingnut Group Chief Executive Officer Clare Olssen outlining a plan to close down the business permanently and dispose of the assets. Staff were allowed to submit their feedback.

A week later, their views and business rescue ideas submitted, the Wingnut staff group were stunned when the employers advised staff they were all redundant. They were now unemployed. All model kit projects in development would be abandoned. All assets of the company would be sold/ disposed of. Wingnut Wings was closed. Permanently.

More than a month on, several of the former staff, still in shock and “gutted” by the speed to permanently close and dispose of the business and a claimed total lack of communications from their senior management, are trying to get their heads around what went wrong, and why?

Several of the former staff have shared their thoughts exclusively with the WW1 aircraft models Forum, speaking on condition of anonymity due to non-disclosure clauses in the employment contracts.

Readers who assume this article is “fake news” because it does not feature an official statement from the management of Wingnut Wings or WingNut Films, and does not identify the former staff by name, can be assured the comments featured in this article come directly from inside the highly secretive surroundings of the Wingnut Wings office.

Wingnuts’ former General Manager Richard Alexander was approached for comment on this article but has declined to comment on the closure of the business, therefore he does not feature in this article.

Since its surprise launch in April 2009 Wingnut Wings re-defined the global plastic model market with its unique combination of Hollywood superstar director Sir Peter Jackson creating a niche business to produce the world’s finest 1/32 scale WW1 aircraft models. From WingNut Films, he created Wingnut Wings.

Sir Peter Jackson with a Wingnuts Pfalz D.IIIa

Kits were designed by digital modellers in Wellington but tooled in China and Korea. The company was innovative and drew on expertise around the world. For example the decals were designed in Wellington but printed in Italy.

In its 11 years Wingnut Wings created a catalogue of unique scale models of WW1 aircraft, some famous, others obscure, and re-energised a faltering model aircraft hobby sector. It drew modellers from the mainstream modelling world to make WW1 subjects popular with thousands of mainstream modellers who would otherwise shy away from the era they regarded, at best, as just Snoopy vs the Red Baron.

The glory days of Wingnuts have been well catalogued, but the public rarely got a glimpse behind the veil of secrecy.
As one observer has summarised – Wingnuts was not a commercial venture and was not ostensibly designed to be market or profit-driven. WnW produced the models that its owner wanted. He owned the business and chose what was produced. The customers enjoyed the ride. With luck, their purchases would fund future projects.

Observers think that unique business structure may have been an underlying weakness to the Wingnut dream. It relied on the whims of its wealthy benefactor and produced more and more expensive and esoteric subjects that did not generate enough revenue to offset the high costs of developing and producing high detail large scale model kits for a very niche world market.

There’s a perception that Wingnuts closed solely due to the coronavirus lockdowns in New Zealand. Former staff say this is not so. The Covid-19 pandemic was a useful trigger for a plan underway before then to restructure the Wingnuts operation.

While one staff member says the coronavirus was cited as the reason this person’s services would not be required in the foreseeable future, others knew different.

“We were told it (the closure reason) was financial, and the owners didn't want to fund it anymore. It was known by staff, and some were in the know for a while,” says one former staff member.

Another remembers the financial issues dated back well before the closure.

“I don’t know how bad it was but there was a huge push of selling everything we could. One staff member said we were in the red and the new Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer would look at us after the TVAL issues were dealt with,” he says.

This refers to the former chief of Sir Peter Jackson’s aircraft manufacturing company The Vintage Aviator, Gene DeMarco, who was imprisoned after a high profile trial last year where he was found guilty of fraud charges involving the sale of TVAL aircraft.

Staff say power players within the WingNut group viewed TVAL as a financial drain and a management changeover at the WingNut group changed the dynamic of the place.

“After the new management came into power, Wingnuts didn’t feel like the Wingnut of previous years,” says one. “It got very corporate and impersonal”.

One former staff member recalls discussions with a colleague who questioned the wisdom of having the two Lancaster and Handley Page bomber projects in production at the same time, given the enormous costs involved in the parallel projects.

Questions were raised at the decision to produce multiple version boxings of esoteric subjects like the Gotha G.1 and UWD and the Handley Page O/100 and O/400 kits. Some staff argued that the strategy did not work with the two Felixstowe flying boat kits, as most customers did not want to buy two large and expensive models of the same subject.

While the Albatros and Fokker D.VII kits were Wingnuts’ biggest sellers, projects like the DFWs and Gothas did not perform well while other big ticket kits such as the Felixstowes started well then slumped. Wingnuts seemed to be fixated on two seater subjects and biased against French aircraft. The place became a sales rollercoaster.

After the Sunday night bombshell call, staff waited for days for some update on what would happen next.

“No one contacted us during that week. We asked about working remotely, but no answer was received. We were contacted around a week later and received a document regarding changes to the company,” a staff member recalls.

That document was an email from WingNut Group Chief Executive Officer Clare Olssen, outlining radical changes to the Wingnut Wings structure.

In it she wrote that with production at TVAL discontinued, and with other matters, a major restructure of Wingnuts would happen.

“It is now proposed that there be greater focus on the strategic management of Wingnut Wings assets and where appropriate, their disposal to realise best/ fair value. Responsibility for and administration of the strategic management of Wingnut Wings assets, including existing stock, be moved under the CFO and Assistant Accountant positions within the WingNut Group Finance function,” Ms Olssen wrote. 

Further, the General Manager position of Wingnut Wings would be disestablished with the responsibilities absorbed into the Wingnut Group finance function with management of residual business relationships being picked up by the Wingnut Group CEO.

Staff grasped that the document spelled the end of Wingnut Wings as a standalone entity. They were given several days to make submissions on the proposed changes.

“We provided feedback, all of us did individually and as a group, this included ideas to save the company and inject some quick cash in the account and ways we could try to release some of the kits that were ready or close to being released.

“We were pretty disappointed with the document presented by management and the owners’ response to our proposals as we believe we never had a chance and their minds were already made up,” a staff member says.

When the axe fell it was wielded by Wingnut CEO Clare Olssen.

“Clare Olssen, advised us. Sir Peter Jackson and senior management never contacted staff in any form either before, during or since our employment ceased,” a former staff member recalls.

Since the shock news, hobby forums have been awash with reports and counter claims on whether Wingnuts is just hibernating due to Covid-19 or gone forever. The management has maintained a solid silence with no official comments made. Approaches from the Forum for comment from the management and Sir Peter Jackson personally have drawn no response.

So could the place just be in hibernation?

“No, not at all. Clare stated that Wingnut Wings is permanently closed and assets are to be sold/disposed of,” one of the redundant staff confirms.

Staff feel the timing of their redundancies was horrible.

“Due to the pandemic many places are not hiring at the moment and the situation does not make it easy for us to seek new employment” one says.
The closure has also focused renewed attention on the role Sir Peter Jackson played at Wingnuts. He created it and funded it but the perception that he was always closely involved with the kits is a myth, those who were there say.

“We never saw Peter in the office. He had little to no involvement in the day to day running of Wingnut Wings. Maybe he only suggested the subjects of the kits that were produced. Richard Alexander provided a weekly report to Peter, but we were never allowed to know what was in those reports”.
Another recalls: “At first Peter maybe had a bit more to do with the day to day running of things, then he just got too busy and couldn’t find the time for us.

“That was why a lot of things never got released like the Figures and the Special Edition kits. I think he still had some say in the subjects that were produced.”

Wingnuts also had a full slate of future subjects lined up for development. These now form part of the assets up for disposal but observers note there’s no guarantee the Wingnuts assets will be sold to any rival model kit companies.

The full reasons for Wingnuts’ sudden and unexpected closure may emerge one day or maybe not. It was a privately owned unique entity whose only directors were Sir Peter Jackson and his wife Dame Fran Walsh.

When the company closed it was on the verge of releasing much anticipated 1/32 scale kits of the Fokker Dr.1 and F.1, the Handley Page O/100 and O/400 bombers and 1/32 scale models of the Avro Lancaster and Dam Buster variant. A Hansa Brandenburg D.1 Starstrutter was also in advanced development.

So close...Render of the abandoned Wingnuts Handley Page O/400 kit

Development of these and many other projects in the pipeline were cancelled. Mixed reports state all assets, stock, tooling (the moulds) are to be disposed of but no deals have been announced. None are known to be underway, fueling speculation the Wingnut moulds may just vanish into a warehouse storage facility and never be reissued.

Fans hold a fond hope Wingnuts may be revived in better times. If this happened would the unique team responsible for designing and producing its catalogue of world class model kits be willing to return?

“There would have to be many changes before I consider returning if Wingnut Wings was to reopen,” says one.

“There would have to be changes at all levels. End of the day, this business was treated as someone's hobby and wasn't run like a business. Wingnut Wings had the potential to make a profit,” this person says.

“There would have to be changes,” says another. “A business plan and someone running it that treats it like a business and not a hobby/side business and with accountability”.

There’s a sense of irony in the fact that Wingnuts, which teased its global fan base of loyal customers with obsessive secrecy, should suddenly end without any official statement or explanation to its customers.

While Sir Peter Jackson has offered no comment on why Wingnuts has been closed, a comment he made to me in 2010 for a feature article I wrote then about the company is perhaps noteworthy.

“I’m determined to keep the hobby aspect going, which is why we are not driven by market forces and profit – it would then become something I don’t want it to be” he said at the time.

Sir Peter Jackson and Richard Alexander in a 2010 Wingnuts publicity photo
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Offline Kreston

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Very enlightening article.  Thank you for the insight.
I shall never forget my admiration for that German pilot, who single handed, fought seven of us for ten minutes. I saw him go into a fairly steep dive and so I continued to watch, and then saw the triplane hit the ground and disappear into a thousand fragments...James McCudden

Offline seiran01

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Good summary Dave, thanks for putting this together.
Mike Swinburne

Offline sagamore

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Thank you for this article.

Offline Eric Armstrong

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Probably the closest thing we will come to that approaches telling the real story about WNW, its apparent demise and the rather bleak prospects going forward.
Honor Necessity

Offline smperry

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Thank you for the time and effort put into this article. I am the son and stepson of newspaper editors and I know a proper bit of journalism when i read it. You did a good job of reporting, something becoming vanishingly rare these days.

WnW was never out to make a profit like most manufacturers of plastic model kits. They chose models, too many of which were incredibly expensive to produce, based on reasons other than what the market wanted. Well, they didn't make a profit and most likely did the opposite. So it totally baffles me why people seem shocked that they went out of business. I'm shocked they hung around as long as they did. Hopefully they really ran up some expenses and will be forced to sell their existing molds and files as I would hate to see all that stuff destroyed.

WnW showed the world how to make a truly fine kit. Fortunately for us modelers there are several folks out there who learned the lesson and are producing high quality kits of their own design. Additionally WnW sparked a quantum leap in aftermarket parts and decal quality and we will benefit from that for years to come.

WnW has come and gone, but the hobby and the industry have been forever changed by them and mostly for the better.

There is something fundamentally amiss with a society which forces it's modelers to work for a living.

Offline Pup7309

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Echoing the previous comments, great article. I feel for the employees. They deserved better. But what a legacy.
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Offline fruibal

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These are breakthrough news, thanks to Dave W. for the insight. Now we know the truth behind the closure of WNW. Such a pity that many brilliant employees were let go and all this time the production ideas were centralized at the whims of PJ. We hope that some major company with real business vision picks up the WWI genre with the same exceptional quality as WNW. We as WWI modelers must support other businesses that are still operative and some others that are emerging in this WWI  market niche. For sure someday this beautiful hobby will come back stronger with the same standard left by the legacy of WNW   

Offline GazzaS

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Thank you for the informative article, Dave!
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Offline Jeff K

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well done, clarifies both what is known and what may never be.

Offline MarkyMark62

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Thanks Dave. They had to close just I stated getting the WW1 bug. Managed to bag a few before the prices went up and treated myself to a couple of biggies before they become unobtainable due to cost.
Best wishes, Mark.

Offline Vickers

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Thanks for delving deep and shedding more light on the closure of WNW, Dave.

WNW catalyzed a renaissance for the entire hobby, but the manner of its demise is an absolute shame.

From their initial launch, it was clear that PJ did not expect to make a profit- even offering free international shipping until just a few years ago. I doubt whether PJ had much influence over the manner in which his TVAL/WNW ventures and everyone involved have been treated by this new management staff. It seems obvious that none of those people share his inspiration and probably wouldn't know a Great War aircraft if one plunged OOC straight down into their designer kitchen. As clandestine as the whole matter has been, it also doesn't surprise me that this small army of skilled craftsmen has been unceremoniously kicked to the curb without so much as a 30-day notice.

As much as I'd love to see at least the Fokker Triplane projects transferred into capable hands, I suspect that this Clare person and her squad will use the same scorched Earth policy on the assets that they used on the now-former WNW employees.
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Offline gbrivio

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[...] You did a good job of reporting, something becoming vanishingly rare these days.

[...]WnW has come and gone, but the hobby and the industry have been forever changed by them and mostly for the better.

Agree all, these two points really describe both the insight and the essence of WNW contribution to the hobby world. Thank you Dave.

Offline rhwinter

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Good article on a sad topic. Thank you, Dave!

Offline Borsos

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Great journalism, thank you for the great work, Dave.

I agree in all aspects with the praise the WNW kits get and actually deserve. And it makes me very angry how the people who created these great kits were treatened by the management and owner. That’s just repelling. I keep my fingers crossed for all the former employees to find a new job soon where their interests and needs count. One thing is to leave all the customers in the dark regarding the future of the company. The other thing is treating the own employees in the same way, people who depend on the company and have to feed families. I regret the end of WNW, but I despise the actual way it did. Thank you Dave for making this so clear.

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