Stan Crader

Author & Lecturer on Writing About Rural America

Stihl American Blog 6 – The Serendipitous Intentional Misinterpretation

DOC051316-05132016113233-p1aill85p0q04h5612r31fb69dr - CopyThe Stihl D24 “Super-Lightening”, also known as the Contra, was a magnificent machine—light, fast and; relative to other brands, dependable—at least that’s how they’re remembered. Early Stihl owners, much like dogmatic Harley owners, are sometimes given to a memory that simultaneously exaggerates and diminishes facts. That is, the good is amplified marginally beyond reality and the bad is expunged.

Nearly all brands of saws of the Super-Lightening era had perpetual technical problems. Taking the saw to the log meant taking the saw to dirtier conditions, running the saws in all positions, and naturally, there was demand for more power—all of which resulted in exceeding the limits and engine fatigue. At the time, sand-casting was the typical technique for making crankcase housing, the part that holds everything in place. Sand-cast housing weren’t durable enough to handle the increased power of the revolutionary Stihl. Running the saws in all positions required a new kind of carburetor, one dependent on vacuum rather than gravity. The powerful engines required carburetors that could govern the speed of the engine in order to keep the operator safe and not over-rev and ruin the engine.

A few super lightening saws remain in running condition today and are prized by their original owner or have been handed down through the generations. Most stories told by owners or heirs are of the day the saw was purchased, the first Stihl in the family and how proud they were, how the saw never gave them a lick of trouble and was the envy of the logwoods. Many boast that their purchase was the first Stihl sale for the local Stihl dealer. All of what is said is told for truth—some of it is. The only thing we know for sure is that long ago somebody bought a Stihl.

A sale is the goal but the greater the sale of an imperfect product the great the problems. The Super-Lightening was winning county fair sawing competitions coast to coast. The popularity of the Stihl in spite of the technical problems associated with housing and carburetion had distributors flummoxed. Tull-Williams continued to provide product, distributors continued to sell—both success and problems grew exponentially. It all came to a head at a conference and a legendary keynote comment.

Reinhold Guhl, as export manager, and fluent in English, attended all meetings alongside Andreas Stihl, who was never interested in learning English. Reinhold, at first glance, appeared to be the quintessential old-school German, firm, void of small talk or pointless humor, and always smoking a cigarette while peering over thick-lensed bifocals. His smile appeared to be more of clever, sinister bemusement, rather than recognition of humor. However, Reinhold projected a persona that conflicted with his typical behavior. I’ll share two stories to explain.

While working at the Stihl factory in Germany I had the pleasure of sharing a lunch with Reinhold. To this day the Stihl executives routinely join the employees in the factory canteen for lunch. While they usually sit at a reserved table, the family regularly mixes with hourly, salaried, young and old, on a daily basis. Reinhold, knowing I was the son of an American distributor, took a seat next to me one day and asked about American music and what I preferred. While I assumed he preferred the classical composures such as Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Straus, Chopin, and other composers who wrote music with no lyrics, coming up with someone comparable and truly American had me stumped. I thought long and hard and decided on whom I thought was a true American composer, Johnny Horton. Reinhold and I were the only people at the table speaking English. I went on to mention others, such as Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, but Reinhold was most impressed with Horton, my first recommendation. Reinhold asked that I send him a Jonathon Horton cassette. Soon after returning to America I sent Reinhold a “Johnny Horton’s Greatest Hits” cassette, and expected that to be the end of it. Well, a couple of years later, while attending a Stihl meeting in Florida, I had the privilege of sitting with Reinhold for breakfast. While smoking a disgusting cigarette, he gazed skyward, we were outside, struck a pondering pose and told the table about the American composer I’d recommended to him, a Mr. Jonathon Horton, and between long drags on his cigarette, told of his favorite Horton song, the one that told of a fantastic battle in New Orleans, one in which the Americans defeated the British using an alligator as a cannon. I nearly choked on my pancake. Since he never broke a devious smile during the explanation and looked to be in deep, contemplative thought, he was serious, and appreciative, I think. Looking back, Henry Mancini may have been a more appropriate suggestion but I went with what I knew, and it worked out.

The next story is equally entertaining but of much more consequence—the legendary speech. The annual distributor meeting occurred in the midst of the technical problems with the Super-Lightening and the financial challenges faced by Tull-Williams. During the meeting Andreas witnessed distributors congratulating themselves on great sales successes but then complaining to him, through Reinhold about the technical problems and frequent product shortages at Tull-Williams.

Since the wives had been invited to the meeting, a concluding gala dinner was planned. Andreas was the keynote speaker—his speeches were never long and rarely written down, more of a keynote statement than speech. It was expected he’d say a few congratulatory words regarding the tremendous sales achieved by the American distributors. Reinhold was the interpreter.

The speech has been shared with me by multiple eyewitness sources. While the wording is a little different, depending on the source, the gist of the speech is consistent. A number of Americans present understood enough German to know what was said, but their versions vary.

Andreas’ told the gala audience, “I am surrounded by nobodies. I should throw you all out and hire new people from the street. At least they will do what I tell them. If things continue like this, it is probably best for me to sell the whole business to McCulloch.”

Reinhold’s interpretation followed, “Welcome and thank you for coming. With good products and excellent distributors like you, one day we will even beat McCulloch.”

Andreas received a thunderous applause and standing ovation. It’s not known if he realized Reinhold’s clever deception but the audience’s response set him on a course to make the needed changes. Stihl replaced the sand-cast molds with the much more expensive but precise die-cast. They leaned on the carburetor vendor and carburetors were improved. Stihl eventually purchased a carburetor manufacturer. And possibly the most strategically impactful move, Stihl made a significant investment in America by helping establish Stihl American, and enjoyed a 300% sales increase the following year.

It’s always interesting to ponder what would have happened if. What would have happened had America not defeated the British? What would have happened had Reinhold not revised the legendary speech? Things would have been different, and probably not better. It’s not known if Andreas ever learned of the intentional misinterpretation or if in fact he and Reinhold had cooked up the routine simply to send a message. Legend has it that Andreas never knew and that makes for a better story. One thing is for certain; Stihl continued to improve on an already superior product and stayed true to the channel strategy most beneficial to the customer. And yes, Stihl beat McCulloch, and everyone else.

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