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Technical skills land Blairsville native key job with Lionel

| Monday, June 18, 2012, 12:40 a.m.

BLAIRSVILLE--Not many people can say they play with toys for a living. In fact, impressionable youth usually are advised to not mix work and play. It was Jon Zahornacky's disregard of that counseling that brought him to the doorstep of Lionel LLC, the famed maker of model trains, for which Zahornacky is now employed as the chief technical officer.

"I'm relatively new with the company," the Blairsville native noted. He climbed aboard the Lionel team in February 2007.

Zahornacky caught the attention of the company more than two years ago, while promoting motion control technology he had developed for use in O-gauge model trains such as those produced by Lionel.

"I had devised a technology they thought would be useful," he explained. "When I met with them, they wanted to hire me. That's not an unusual event."

The main reason Lionel hired Zahornacky was to apply his technological know-how to help work out the bugs in a train system that was the brainchild of classic rocker Neil Young.

Many people outside the circle of model train collectors may not realize that Young has become one of the hobby's biggest contributors. A part-owner of Lionel, Young was very influential in the development of the Legacy command control system used by Lionel.

Zahornacky worked closely with Young in the final stretch of Legacy's development.

"Neil is involved with the company and has become an asset to Lionel," Zahornacky remarked, "as has the new CEO, Jerry Calabrese."

One of Lionel's major goals now is to get its product onto the shelves of some of the bigger retail outlets such as F.A.O. Schwartz, Target and Toys 'R Us.

"Jerry is the visionary," Zahornacky said of Calabrese. "He had a lot of challenges coming to Lionel four years ago. He and Neil started to re-architect the company from the ground up, and they got me two years ago."

As the chief technical officer, Zahornacky has the task of improving the company's technology for new projects, as well as making improvements to its existing products.

"My job is to basically run all of the technical and production" aspects of Lionel, he said, noting he often works with Young on the technical issues and Calabrese on the production business.

Zahornacky has patents on two of his main developments. The first is an accessory controls component called the Mini Commander that has helped convert model trains to remote control operation while improving other functions such as lighting and effects.

The second was a motion control technology that applies a constant-speed system to model locomotives.

"That's what really piqued Lionel's interest," Zahornacky said. "This was never done before in an O-gauge" system.

While growing up, Zahornacky often played with his father's small model train layout. In his teens, he got a job at Pyle Appliance, and, on Saturdays, the owner would send him to his home to tinker with and fix his son's large model train set.

"So I always had a little bit of interest in them," Zahornacky noted.

After he graduated from Blairsville High School in 1974, Zahornacky studied electrical engineering at a DeVry school of technology in Ohio. Then, with his degree in hand, he moved to the West Coast and, in 1979, made his new home in the Santa Clara area of California, following an offer for a job.

After he worked for years in the network storage industry, in 2000 the company for which he'd been working was bought by Maxtor, a large data storage developer.

"Basically, I didn't need to work for a while," Zahornacky said.

With no job to tie up his time, Zahornacky was able to reacquaint himself with his childhood hobby--model trains. He started designing circuit boards for train sets just for fun, and he ended up developing the patented system that got him noticed by Lionel--a remote-operated control unit.

Some fellow members of the Toy Train Operating Society, a group for model train enthusiasts, saw his work and requested systems for their own sets.

Using a contact from China he'd made during his years in the data storage business, Zahornacky was able to get some units manufactured and began selling them through a Web site.

That site was the beginning of Zahornacky's own model train business, The Electronic Railroad Co.

Once he'd made a name for himself among toy train devotees, Zahornacky began pitching his designs to Lionel about three years ago.

"I had gotten my designs together and thought, 'They should love it; they should buy it,'" Zahornacky recalled.

He flew out to Michigan to talk with Lionel officials and try to make a deal. He, in turn, was interested in some of the company's components that he thought could benefit his own enterprise.

"In discussions with them, I think they thought more of me than my business," he said. "But I kept pursuing them."

Lionel officials finally contacted Zahornacky to place him under contract in the summer of 2006. Then, in February 2007, he was flown to the company's New York headquarters to meet with Calabrese, who offered to hire him as Lionel's chief technical officer.

He accepted the job, as well as Lionel's offer to purchase The Electronic Railroad Co., and Lionel set him up with offices in Santa Clara.

Right away, he was assigned to the Legacy project, which had been in the works for years. Model train collectors had been anxiously awaiting the product, and Lionel was anxious to get the system into the public's hands.

Zahornacky got to know Young very well while working on the Legacy system.

For whatever reasons, it wasn't happening," Zahornacky said of the system's development. "They needed more resources."

When Zahornacky was brought up to speed on the system, he helped Lionel work through the steps needed to get it up and running.

"I basically took the locomotive and (reworked) it so that it would function properly," he said.

On the Legacy system, a knob on a remote control unit is used to regulate the activation and motion of the train engine, and it also allows the engineer to have command of the whistle.

"It's like nothing anybody has experienced before" with model trains, Zahornacky said.

When it was released to the public over six months ago, the system was very well-received by model railroad buffs, who praised it for its easy installation, smooth operation and the maneuverability of the speed and brakes.

"Neil was really brilliant" in the development of the unit, Zahornacky commented. "He's really into trains. He knows what people want.

"The Legacy works great, and people just love it."

Zahornacky's friendship with Young has been the result of their close work together on the Legacy project. As a young man, Zahornacky had been a fan of some of Young's older work.

Zahornacky has been exposed to new aspects of Young's music since forging the acquaintance, but model trains dominate most of their conversation.

"When he's in his world of music, he doesn't like to talk trains, and when he's in his world of trains, he doesn't like to talk music," Zahornacky noted.

But when he first met Young, he wasn't star-struck. He was more impressed with Young's work and dedication to the model train world than the artist's musical exploits.

"I was surprised more in the detail of his work, in the way he's involved with the company," Zahornacky said. "He reinvigorated the hobby."

With the Legacy's initial development behind him, Zahornacky said he's now looking at ways to improve systems already in use by Lionel while designing new products to keep the company at the forefront of the model train industry.

"My goal is to develop products that sell out, products that people feel like they have to have," he said.

"I need to keep coming up with new technology that makes the trains must-haves."

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