Stan Crader

Author & Lecturer on Writing About Rural America

1st Stihl Salesman in America

Genealogy is always tedious and rarely interesting, especially when it deals with an unrelated family. We now know that genetics play a significant role in our health and behavior. It’s easy to recognize the effects of genetics in animals–retrievers naturally retrieve, beagles chases rabbits, and chihuahuas bark. The same natural tendencies occur in humans.

The Bryan’s have traced their genealogy all the way back to Sir Francis Bryan, who served as Governor General of Ireland 1549. The following reads like something out of the book of Numbers, but is representative of the journey of many American families. Francis was the father of William who was the father of Morgan, who immigrated to Virginia, married Martha Stroode, an orphan. Morgan and Martha had nine children including a son, William. William married Mary Boone, sister of famed explorer, Daniel Boone. William and Mary moved to North Carolina where they had ten children. Samuel, the oldest son, married Mary Hunt in 1775 and moved to Kentucky, Samuel and Mary had eleven children, including a son, Luke. Luke married Mary Sanders 1807 and together they had twelve children, including a son John Samuel. John married Harriet Hartman 1854. John and Harriett had six children including a son, Homer. Homer married Rachel Friend 1879. Homer and Rachel had two sons including Frederick. Frederick married Gertie Kahn 1906 and to them was born Frederick II, 1912, in St. Joe, Missouri.

Since he was the second Frederick, he was nicknamed Bud, which he preferred rather than being called Junior. Bud, following the footsteps of his father, attended the University of Indiana, where excelled in football and track. During the summer months he worked as a life guard at The Grand Hotel on Mackinaw Island, MI, not a bad gig for a college kid. His scholastic achievements at IU paled in comparison to later accomplishments.

After graduation from IU, Bud made two decisions that would set the course of his life. He proposed to Kay Parr. Kay, was a formative lady, born in Amarillo, TX 1913 into a family renown for large construction projects, the most well-known being the historic Santa Fe, NM train station. Kay’s father was no fool and not impressed that Bud was the descendent of an Irish Governor and the sister of Daniel Boone; the wedding would receive his blessing and occur after Bud got a job.

Bud gained employment with a highly respected Chicago firm, The Arthur Mall Tool Company, selling among others things, Stihl chain saws. Bud and Kay were married 1935. With the job, Bud had a wife and a Stihl—both would serve him well.

1940, Frederick Bryan III (Rick) was born to Bud and Kay.

1941, American declared war on Germany, Mall Tool, no longer able to get Stihls, began to manufacture their own saw, copied after Stihl patented design, and went to market with a saw bearing his name, a chain saw commonly referred to as a Mall.

1944, the job at Mall Tool took the family to Cincinnati, where the Bryan family remains to this day.

Bob McCulloch, born in St. Louis, 1910, was the son of an industrialist who’d made a fortune building Thomas Edison electrical power plants. Bob’s wife, Barbara, was the daughter of Stephen Briggs, of Briggs and Stratton fame. After watching the growth of the chainsaw market, Bob used his financial wherewithal and the in-law familial small engine connection to start a small engine manufacturing company—McCulloch Motors Company. When McCulloch decided to manufacture chainsaws he looked for those who’d been the most successful at selling saws and offered them a deal they couldn’t refuse. Rather than hire salesmen to sell his product he offered those who’d proven to be leading salesmen in the chainsaw category a distributorship, a chance to own their own company, take their own risks, and reap the results of their efforts. 1948, Bud got the call.

1948, Bryan Equipment moved into the company’s first location; Bud and Kay’s home. Bud hit the road selling McCullochs and Kay handled the shipments.

1950, Bryan Equipment’s, 2.5 person operation, moved into a two story building with offices upstairs and shipping operations in the basement. The .5 was eight year old Frederick III (Rick). Bud, using what he’d learned while working for Arthur Mall, grew the business one dealer at a time by providing a quality product and excellent customer service.

In spite of being a competitor of Mall Tool Company, Bud remained respectful of Arthur Mall and Mall Tool Company. Rick tells a story of when only ten years old and helping man a booth at the Indiana State Fair took some McCulloch brochures and handed them out while standing in front of the Mall Tool booth. For that he was rewarded with a highly effective punishment that did the trick, instilled respect, and taught the painful consequence of disrespect. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson rarely taught today.

1954, Bryan Equipment moved into its third location, which they shared with Hoobler printing for ten years. Roger Staubach, who married one of the Hoobler girls, and like Rick, played football. Staubach attended a rival high school against which Rick’s school played a practice game. Rick conveniently forgets the score of the game.

By 1965, covering Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, Bryan had grown to be McCulloch’s 2nd largest distributor. The company moved to a location of their own, no more sharing of Parking lots, utility bills, and the temporary uncertain sense that prevails in a shared environment. It was a prescient move and positioned them for greater things to come.

The company experienced their first major tragedy when the salesman covering Eastern Kentucky died of a massive heart attack, alone, in a hotel room in Mt. Sterling, KY, leaving behind a wife and three children. With the bad comes the good–Frederick II (Bud) asked Frederick III (Rick) to join the company.

After attending the University of Cincinnati, much to the chagrin of his father and grandfather, who’d attended Indiana University, and following a stint serving America in the US Army, Rick joined ARMCO Steel where he performed such that he was promoted ahead of other more experienced veteran sales people. One of the perks he’d earned along with the promotion at ARMCO was a company car with air conditioning, a 1964 Ford Falcon four door station wagon. Bryan Equipment purchased the car, leaving Rick with the need to explain to veteran salesman how the owner’s son’s company car was the only company car with A/C.

The sixties were a time of significant change in retail America. Small independent shops that had served small town America for decades began to lose market share to nationally branded outlets. Sears, originally a mail order watch shop in 1886, had grown to the largest retailer in the country with locations in nearly every urban setting in America, selling a wide variety of items including pre-fabricated houses items for the house, insurance for home and auto, and many other items including clothing, sports equipment, the list goes on.

JC Penney, another Missouri boy, had grown his retail organization from a small store in Wyoming in 1902 to one of Sears’ major competitors. In 1940, JC Penny hired a young fellow by the name of Sam Walton. Walton would eventually leave JC Penny and build a retail empire that would eclipse Sears and JC Penny combined, but that’s later. The popularity of these one stop shopping outlets, the lower prices as a result of their enormous buying power, and their nationally branded marketing campaigns began to make it more difficult for the small independent outlets to compete.

Homelite was likely the first major chain saw manufacturer to break from the traditional wholesale channel strategy and begin selling directly to a major retail chain, Sears. This move befuddled the traditional independent full service dealer who had been instrumental in establishing Homelite as a major brand in the chain saw category. McCulloch, having slightly more respect for the traditional channel, but sensing the need to accommodate the conglomerates, approached their distributors with a different but equally disruptive proposition.

1966, McCulloch called a special meeting at which they asked all distributors to begin selling to JC Penny TBA stores. TBA stores were JC Penny stores with a tires, batteries, and accessory department. JC Penny TBA stores were already selling and servicing a variety of products that used small engines, so McCulloch’s request wasn’t ludicrous, but as with Homelite, is likely the point in time marking the beginning of the end for both well-known and up until then, highly respected companies.

For Bud, the violation of his principles by McCulloch was clear, but the ramification of losing McCulloch was heavy on his conscience. He’d built the business by establishing dealers based on the local market need and the ability of the dealer to appropriately service product sold—one dealer at a time. Bud’s decision to refuse to comply with McCulloch’s request would cost him the distributorship. Based on principle it was an easy decision but that didn’t make the decision simple—it was complicated. Based on fiduciary responsibility, considering Bud now employed the primary provider for over twenty families, including his son, and had just moved into what was then a state of the art facility, declining McCulloch’s mandate was potentially disastrous for many.

Poulan jumped at the chance to establish McCulloch’s largest defector as a distributor. After agreeing to allow Bryan Equipment to sell Poulans in the same areas that they’d been selling McCulloch, Bud placed on order and the salesmen hit the road with the news. The dealers held Bud in very high esteem for the position he’d taken with McCulloch and rewarded the company with generous orders for Poulans.

In the meantime, Jimmy Hampton, their representative from Omark, selling saw chain and other saw accessories, familiar with Bryan Equipment and the situation, got word to Stihl American, also one of Jimmy’s accounts. Ernie Rainey of Stihl American called Bud.

Just prior to being contacted by Stihl American, Bud had received word from Poulan that Bryan Equipment would not be allowed to sell Poulan throughout their established territory. Bud, only days earlier had been fretting about the fiduciary predicament that had been the result of standing on principle, was now faced with another decision. He called a special meeting of his sales staff and asked their advice. While they were disappointed to not have Poulan, a more well-known brand at the time, they recalled dealers asking about Stihl and in some cases a few dealers were already selling Stihl and getting very good reviews. He terminated the arrangement with Poulan. It’s possible that Bryan Equipment holds the record for being a Poulan distributor for the shortest length of time.

To everyone’s delight, dealers enthusiastically changed their orders from Poulans to Stihls. It’s likely the full page Life Magazine ad had something to do with many dealers having already received calls about Stihl and recognizing the name.

Working out the details of how Bryan Equipment would be able to represent Stihl throughout their already established dealer network required Stihl American to negotiate buy out deals or termination agreements with the several small distributors already established in the proposed Bryan coverage area. One of the distributors that had to be dealt with was United Welding Company of Wellington, Ohio, the very first Stihl distributor in America, established during the Tull-Williams era.

The deal struck with Ken Hueber, owner of Farm & Forest, the Cincinnati based Stihl distributor was for Ken to become Stihl’s regional manager, whose only account was Bryan Equipment. Since the deal relieved Ken of the pressures of ownership and likely increased his annual income, he eagerly agreed to the terms. Ken became an extraordinary asset to the Stihl American organization and eventually went on to perform para-legal services and remained with Stihl until retirement.

Most of the distributors encompassed in the Bryan Equipment deal were little more than mega dealers and not performing traditional wholesale functions. Consequently, Bryan inherited only a handful of dealers, which worked out fine, sense they already had a cadre of dealers who were appreciative of Bud’s stance in opposition to McCulloch’s mandate, and rewarded his decision with immediate support for Stihl. Rapp’s Repair of Beaver, Ohio, possibly the oldest Stihl Dealer in America, was among the dealers inherited by Bryan in the massive restructuring of Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky.

With details between Stihl American and Bryan Equipment worked out, and an agreement consummated with a handshake, Bud Bryan placed an order with Stihl American that was the largest order they’d ever received and represented more saws than Stihl American had sold in the entire country the previous year. Bryan Equipment, with one order, became Stihl’s largest distributor and remained so for several decades.

Rick continued to represent Bryan Equipment and Stihl on the road for few more years before joining management and begin mentoring for his inevitable executive position—he recalls numerous stories about life as a Stihl salesman in the early years. His stories are similar and representative of those told by others.

Possibly the most remarkable instance and telling of the commitment by Stihl American to Stihl and their distributors is of Ernie Rainey, VP of Sales and Marketing for Stihl American. The 1967 Paul Bunyan show, a mainstay for those selling chain saws, was held in Mansfield, OH. The nearest airport served by commercial airlines was Columbus. After arriving in Columbus, Ernie learned there were no rental cars available, at which time Ernie simply started walking and hitchhiked to the show, seventy miles away. This type of effort, while extraordinary, wasn’t unique.

Stihl road warriors, those responsible for managing a territory, finding and establishing dealers, occasionally must cancel dealers. Rick had one such case in an area in which it was common for men to carry side arms and occasionally use them. In this particular county the Sheriff had hauled him to the Sheriff’s office under the guise of arrest, only to ask for a demo saw. When the local dealer no longer met his obligations Rick cancelled the dealer by phone rather than take the risk of doing so in person, particularly in consideration of fact that said dealer had a questionable reputation, a General Patton demeanor, the habit of wearing a large caliber pearl handled, well used, revolver.

Years later the area was being handled by Rick’s replacement, Bill Lucas. Times had changed and Bill found the need to cancel the dealer that Rick had set up and re-establish the dealer that Rick had cancelled. When Bill returned to the former dealer, who was still sporting the pearl handled weapon, and offered him the dealership, Bill was told that the prior gutless wonder had cancelled him and he’d never handle Stihl again. Bill simply told the dealer that Rick had been fired long ago, at which time the dealer agreed to resume carrying Stihl.

Rick once followed an empty logging truck to see where it was getting logs. The trip took him deep into the Appalachian back country to a remote logging camp. The crews were harvesting Tulip Poplars for North Carolina furniture companies. There wasn’t a Stihl to be found. Rick found the foreman and convinced him to demo a Stihl 07 and 090. After the demo, the loggers were favorable to trying Stihl but insisted that Rick stay for dinner. The dining hall was rugged but clean. The table was set and each setting had a small water glass, which turned out to be a large shot glass. Following a robust dinner, the cook poured everyone several ounces of 150 proof moon shine. Rather than risk life or limb by refusing to drink the hillbilly kerosene, Rick downed it. After getting an order for several saws, which were delivered to the local dealer, Rick staggered to his car and headed to nearest hotel, which was hours away.

Bud continued to lead the company for several years before handing operations over to Rick in 1974, who gave the reins to Tom Jones in 1991, who mentored and then handed the company over to Frederick IV (Rick IV) 2008. Bryan Equipment, company that exudes high ethics, continues to set the example in wholesale distribution and now serves over 1500 Stihl dealers throughout Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia from a 200,000 square foot facility.

Bryan Equipment, following Bud Bryan’s series of prescient, auspicious decisions, and principled example, is now in the company’s third generation, and having defied statistical odds of survivorship for family owned businesses, now selling over 500,000 Stihl units each year, has become the envy of the power equipment industry.

2 Responses to 1st Stihl Salesman in America

  • Larry Chambers says:

    Stan
    Having been a Stihl territory Mgr for 31 years I have had the pleasure of meeting a lot of the people that you have written about. I have heard a lot of stories about the rest, but your blog has filled in a lot of details that ties it all together. Thanks so much.

  • Craig Walker says:

    Stan, Thanks for posting this. Great refresher. I go back to 1969 with Stihl. I worked for 2 Large dealers: one in Terre Haute, Indiana during the school year at Indiana State University. Deckers Small Engines. During the 2 Summers for Reynolds Farm Equipment. My dad took on Stihl in 1972. I worked with my Dad full and part time until I went to work for Bryan Equipment in 1981—for 32 years.
    We are having a 50 year celebration tonight on the river in Cincinnati.
    Like Larry I got to meet and know many of the people in the history article.

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