The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book, “Stihl American.”
For twenty years Etta Whyte waited at home for her husband’s safe return. Al Whyte, a graduate of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police School, comparable to America’s advanced FBI training, served on Vancouver, British Columbia’s police force for over twenty years before joining Titan. Al was Titan’s sales engineer responsible for Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Since the new position was with an American company and working in America, Al, Etta, and their eight year old son moved a few miles south, across the Washington state line.
After gaining considerable knowledge of the chainsaw and the timber industry while serving Titan, McCulloch, and Homelite, Al was hired by Stihl American to cover America’s Northwest, the world’s greatest timber region.
Al and Etta’s only son, Fred, watched and learned. During Fred’s undergraduate college summers he interned at Homelite’s northwest branch office. It was a prescient beginning.
As is the case with all honorable Scotsmen, Fred mastered the bagpipes, simply referred to as ‘pipes’ by true Scotsmen. By the time he graduated from college, Fred had competed in and won several piping contests, the consequence of which was an offer by the University of Iowa for a staff teaching position and an opportunity to earn his Masters Degree.
The University of Iowa had a long running tradition for their pipe band. When the enrollment of pipe playing men dwindled during WWII, the university created an all-women’s pipe band. Fred’s teaching position was not awarded in order for him to play the pipes but rather for him to direct the world’s largest all-girls pipe band, 150 members strong. One of his students, only a couple of years younger, first caught his eye and then his heart.
Fred and Karen, newlyweds, he just having completed a sales training curriculum with Datsun of America, and Karen just settling into her position as the county nurse, received a life changing phone call from Fred’s father, Al—opportunity was tapping at their door. Rainer Gloeckle, the Whiz kid, who Fred’s father had succeeded in the northwest was leaving Arkansas and returning to Germany. Al encouraged Fred to apply for the position.
In 1971 most had yet to hear about Stihl and those who had couldn’t properly pronounce the name. A typical dealer display consisted of a three saw rack with two of the saws used and dripping oil. Stihl was recognized and highly praised by many professional loggers but Stihl’s market share was likely in the single digits. Stihl was nowhere near the leading brand it is today.
It’s possible that Fred had at one time begrudged his father for being forced to learn the pipes, but if so, he surely realized that it was the pipes who led him to Karen. And he had fond memories of the time he’d spent working at Homelite as an intern. To top off the prescient series of events that had taken place over the course of several years, Fred had used one of Stihl’s newest models, the S10, during a recent visit with his parents. All things considered, Fred realized his father usually knew what he was doing and doing it for good reason. Fred and Karen rightly concluded it prudent to take Al’s advice and at least apply.
Fred flew to New Jersey for the interview. Gordon Williams picked him up at the airport in his 600 Mercedes Benz. Fred recalls getting stares while receiving the royal treatment and then getting into a Mercedes limousine. It’s not likely that any of Fred’s University of Iowa Masters program classmates would be treated to an interview such as the one Fred was about to attend. Rather than check into a hotel, Gordon took Fred to his home to meet the Williams family. While watching a pre-season NFL football game, the first American man of Stihl, Ernie Rainey joined them.
Based on what each had heard about the other through Fred’s father, it was almost as if they’d already met. Judging by the evening’s agenda, it’s plausible to think that Gordon had decided to offer Fred the job days earlier. Knowing that Fred was a Scotsman, they plied him with Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch. Fred remembers little else about the evening except getting lost in the house between his bedroom and the toilet.
Fred had the good sense to speak to Karen before accepting the offer. After agreeing to embark on the new adventure together, they rented a U-Haul, and headed south toward Little Rock, Arkansas. Even though Fred followed the legendary Whiz kid, he brought his own unique style and quickly established his own identity within the Stihl culture.
I recall one of Fred’s first sales meetings at Crader—the sales team had gathered at a remote cabin on the banks of a spring fed southern Missouri river. Fred arose early the first morning and quietly crept away before anyone noticed he was gone. Just when the sun began to cast a few faint shadows everyone had begun to gather on the cabin’s screened in porch, Fred emerged from the fog in his pipe playing attire and marching to the tune of “Scotland The Brave.” The first response was to take a shot at the mysterious person in the questionable garb, followed by curiosity as to the under garments one wears while playing the pipes. Fred plowed his own furrow.
Too often the sins of the father are visited upon the son. Fred and Karen’s union produced a son and a daughter, John and Jean. Like Fred, John was eager to learn to play the pipes. And like Fred, he excelled. Fred and John eventually competed in Scotland’s annual world championship pipe band competition where they placed third out of 52 bands.
Stihl continued to enjoy rapid growth and record setting sales years. Fred’s field position was eventually split into multiple regions taken over by others when he moved to Virginia Beach as a product manager for guide bars and saw chain. It was during that time that most Stihl distributors began selling Stihl chain exclusively and abandoned brands such as Carlton, and Oregon. Appropriately impressed with Fred’s leadership abilities, the Stihl family asked Fred to first establish and then lead a Canadian operation, where he’d be responsible for distribution of Stihl throughout all of Canada.
Fred’s performance in Canada resulted in him being asked to return to Virginia Beach as President of Stihl Inc., overseeing marketing, sales, and the rapid expansion of Stihl’s North America manufacturing operations.
After serving Stihl for over 45 years and leading the company from a moderately known brand to America’s biggest selling outdoor handheld power tool, Fred retired as Stihl Incorporated’s longest serving president.
The Stihl family, not wishing to lose Fred’s knowledge and influence, appointed him sole director and chairman of the board at Stihl Inc, a board of one, created solely to keep Fred in the game.
During the research for this book I had the privilege of spending an afternoon with Fred and Karen at their home in Virginia Beach. He and I discussed the book and reminisced about all things Stihl, the Stihl family, Stihl’s unique marketing strategy, what Stihl had meant to his family, and so many others, and sadly, Fred’s recent diagnosis with cancer.
Just before Karen graciously drove me back to my hotel, I shook Fred’s hand, patted him on the shoulder, and confirmed that I’d pray for him. We both knew it was likely our last earthly visit. Fred passed away soon thereafter, July 7, 2017. His passing left in me a wounded heart that won’t soon be healed, if ever.