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Interview: Xavier Lim, Bluefin's Gundam Guru

by Lauren Orsini,

If you've bought a do-it-yourself plastic model kit from the Gundam anime franchise in the United States, you've probably got Xavier Lim to thank for it. Lim is Brand Manager at Bluefin, the official distribution company for Gunpla (that is, Gundam plastic models), Tamashi Nations figures, and other collectibles from Japan. We've spoken to Lim about his wider role in the past, but today we focused on just Gunpla. An avid modeler and organizer for the International Gundam Model Competition, Lim walks his talk. Read on to hear about how Gunpla gets to North America, which kits are the most popular, and what makes overseas Gunpla collectors unique.

How did you personally get started in the distributor business?

I joined Bluefin back in 2010. I went up to the company when they were exhibiting at Anime Expo and asked if they had any job openings. At the time I thought Bluefin was just an exhibitor at events and might be able to offer me some temporary, part time work. Turns out that they were the official distributor of Bandai's Japanese departments and the events they did were just a compliment to their real business of distributing product to various regions of the country. They were already distributing Gundam plastic models, [also known as Gunpla] and were just beginning to distribute the Bandai Tamashii Nations figure line.

I did some initial work for them at some shows, beginning with San Diego Comic Con the week after I had first approached them. From there I worked my way through various departments, from warehouse shipping and packing, account executive sales, and now marketing where in my current position I'm Brand Manager for various Bandai departments that bring products in from Japan.

Not everyone has the guts or the credentials to go up to a company at a con and ask for a job. What skills did you have that helped you to get hired?

I had a few references from some friends and associates who were already doing some work for the company regarding Gunpla. I came from that group as well—a small but awesome group of Gunpla enthusiasts, now known as “Those Gundam Guys.” We worked on build samples for companies to display at events, and they referenced me for the job.

Aside from that, what I had in terms of skills was a wealth of knowledge about the product. At the time, because of my own interest, I was already into anime and the anime collectible industry, and those sales trends. Bluefin saw that I knew a lot of information that could be used to market these items to more and more stores.

Anyone who buys a Gunpla kit in the US can clearly see the “Bluefin” logo on the box somewhere. But how exactly do Gunpla models go from Japan, to Bluefin, to us?

The Bluefin sticker is actually applied by Bandai itself at the factory. It indicates the region the product is going to, and allows us to keep track of where the product is at. All Bluefin Gunpla models come from Japan. They leave the Shizuoka factory, are transported to the port, and are sent here to the US. The entire process takes about a month by boat.

So whenever I buy a Gunpla in the US, even when that kit was being put together in Japan, it had already been earmarked for American buyers?

Yes. And the quantity is carefully monitored. This way we know what is being sold, Bandai knows what is being sold, and this allows a great degree of information to be gathered which previously wasn't really available.

What percentage of Gunpla at Bandai's factory are marked for North American sales?

Right now, in terms of various countries where Gunpla is sold in, the US ranks at number 4 or number 5 in most purchases. We're actually pretty high up on the list despite what most people think about how well Gunpla does here compared to in other countries. Other countries in the top 10 after Japan are Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, and the Philippines. Any country that has competitors that participate in the Gunpla Builders World Cup have a market for Gundam plastic models at this time.

How does Bluefin decide which models get distributed in North America?

We bring all of them in. There may be some that have lesser quantity than others so their availability might be a little more scarce, but they're all the same models as in Japan. We do sometimes make additional reproduction requests for models that are stronger in our market. Traditionally, because of the circumstances involved with how Gundam was launched in North America, Gundam Wing continues to have the strongest selling power. Models from Gundam 00, Gundam Unicorn, and most recently Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans are picking up, too.

It was a big surprise to me when I started seeing Gunpla in Barnes & Noble in 2013. How did that partnership come about?

Barnes & Noble approached us at a business-to-business event called Toy Fair. This is a large event where various manufacturers unveil their latest products for the upcoming year for retailers to purchase. The Barnes & Noble collectibles department has some very sharp management and smart leadership. They saw a very good opportunity for Gunpla in their stores. They're ahead of the game in finding ways to differentiate themselves from other retailers, especially considering they were originally just a book business.

We initially launched a test store program with Gunpla in just 11 stores. What happened was we let it go viral. Fans caught wind of the fixtures being set up in stores. They took pictures, they posted them on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and various Gundam message boards. That's how fans found out that a store, a large store, was going to be selling Gunpla in the US.

The sales were very good for its initial run, so we expanded to 191 stores, then to 450 stores, and we're almost in all the Barnes & Noble stores at this point. If you told me ten years ago that a bookstore would be selling tons of Gundam models, I wouldn't have believed you. But the sales data, especially what we submit to Bandai for reporting, does speak a lot to the potential the US market has for Gunpla.

Where else might I see Gunpla for sale in the future?

In the future, maybe you'll see kits at GameStop. There's already a few kits in Hot Topic's Box Lunch store. There are some other stores we're considering including a very large retailer that carried Gundam back in the early 2000's, which a lot of people might remember. But I can't speak about it right now since that's still in the planning and negotiation stage.

In our April interview, you said “I'm more of the fan of the Gunpla product than a fan of Gundam itself.” Can you tell us why you're such a big fan of Gunpla?

That comes from my own personal background. I was originally a model kit builder. The first model I ever built was the SR-71 Blackbird. I come from that background.

When I was a child and Gundam Wing was airing on TV, I gravitated immediately toward the mobile suit design. Even when Gundam was no longer airing on US television, I was still always looking for Gunpla models to build. Stores weren't just importing only Gundam Wing kits anymore, so I was building kits based on mecha I'd never seen before. Over time, I would eventually discover and watch the other Gundam series that were released, but the focus for me was to find out about the model kits I was building. The designs were what appealed to me.

You mentioned you customize your Gunpla builds. Do you think Bluefin will ever start bringing over Gunpla builder tools, like the infamous “God Hand” nippers?

The God Hand nippers are actually a licensed product, there's a character IP associated with it. However, we actually are the official distributor for Mr. Hobby. They're the ones that make the Gundam Markers and the Mr. Color paint line, referenced by Bandai in Gunpla kit instruction manuals.

We just developed a tool set specifically for Gundam models which includes nippers, a hobby knife, spare blades, tweezers, a metal file and markers. It all comes in a case very resistant to damage. All the materials are made in Japan. It should be hitting North American stores in a few weeks.

Do you still build Gunpla models?

My time isn't as free as it used to be because I'm overseeing a lot of the business for Gunpla, but I still build. I'm working on a custom version of Gundam Barbatos right now.

I try to stay current on model building and shows though because it turns out that Gundam is really hard to sell if you don't know anything about Gundam. There are over 35+ years of content and characters. Bandai has about 2,000 active model kit products. Unless you've already been absorbed into that for a while, it's hard to teach somebody how to sell it. If you're a retailer, you need to know which models to sell in your store.

Internally at Bluefin, we tell our sales teams, “Yes, you do need to watch this Gundam show in order to find out the appeal of the characters, the mechs that audiences are asking for.” Our retailer relationships depend on our guidance and knowledge of the product.

Does the fact that Gunpla manuals are in Japanese also make it harder to sell products?

Actually, starting with some of the Iron-Blooded Orphans kits, they started localizing some of the instructions. You'll see that a lot more often. Bandai is moving to a more globalized system in recognition of a larger market for Gunpla outside of Japan.

In the meantime, we like to compare Gunpla to Lego—there are no essential words in Lego manuals. They're pictorial diagrams. If you can understand how to build Legos, you can build a Gundam model.

How did you get started managing the US branch of the International Gundam Model Competition?

Part of that comes from my experience with the subject matter—I've already been building models for a while and I have an understanding of basic modeling technique so I'm able to judge modeling quality effectively.

At the time that I joined the company, Bluefin had somebody who was partially administering the competition, but I took the reins after he left the company. I work with Bandai in determining the representatives who are potential candidates for the finals for the World Cup competition in Japan.

In your opinion, is Gunpla becoming more or less popular in North America? On what do you base your opinion?

Gundams are in more stores than ever before, and the sales continue to increase every year. For Gundam Barbatos alone, we'll probably be selling 20,000 to 30,000 this year. For all Gunpla kits, the sales are about half a million in the US, and this year we'll probably break a million thanks to the broadcast of Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans on TV.

What are some of the most popular Gunpla in the US? Why do you think that is?

Anything from Gundam Wing. Aside from that, we did see a really large spike when Iron-Blooded Orphans premiered last fall. It quickly overtook Gundam Build Fighters and Gundam Build Fighters Try in terms of Gunpla sales.

In terms of mecha designs, there's Deathscythe Hell, Heavyarms, and Wing Zero Custom [from Gundam Wing], but after that it fluctuates heavily from month to month depending on whether Bandai has released new versions of past models, or if there's a timed release of something becoming available to the public. Like when Gundam: The Origin because available in the US, we saw a big spike in Gunpla from the original series [like shown in The Origin].

Traditionally, the original Mobile Suit Gundam models haven't fared well in the US for model kit sales, but we've seen that increase over the years as more people become exposed to the anime itself, or the Gundam: The Origin manga, or they're wanting to find out more about Gundam's roots after watching later titles like Gundam Unicorn or Gundam Build Fighters.

What do Bluefin's most popular Gunpla models say about the North American Gunpla buyers, and the market in general?

The US audience is similar to what it is in Japan. In Japan, the demographic for Gunpla is usually young adult or older, with a large number being in their 30s and 40s because that was the generation that grew up with the first Gundam anime. For us, it's about less kids and more young adults in their 20s as well, because these are the ones that grew up with Gundam Wing on TV, and now they have disposable income. Now they're able to afford more expensive and more difficult model kits, as well as a greater variety and number of them.

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