Stan Crader

Author & Lecturer on Writing About Rural America

Stihl in America – Blog 1 “Genius, Compassion, Tenacity”

“Amazing,” is the typical response by many when told that Stihl has been recognized as the leading brand of outdoor handheld power tool for the 7th consecutive year. Once told the Stihl story, one quickly realizes that amazing doesn’t do Stihl justice. Amazing doesn’t appropriately describe Stihl’s pinnacle position–all things considered, Stihl is in a league of its own and has no true comparison.

Most, after having heard my biopic on Stihl, and knowing my penchant for writing, have repeatedly encouraged me to write a book about Stihl in America. I’m now doing so. Henceforth, my blogs will be about Stihl in America. The blogs will be cleverly titled Stihl in America – Blog 1, Blog 2, ….you get the idea. Eventually, the blogs will be combined, edited, and published in book form.

The salient details of the writing will be factual but an occasional ‘perhaps’ will be included to help put the reader in the time and place.

All good stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Real stories have a beginning and evolve–rarely having an easily identified middle. Great stories are perpetual and have no end. The Stihl story is a real story, about real people, Stihl people, and contrary to what most think, begins in Switzerland, not Germany and the end is nowhere in sight.

I treasure your input during the process as well as any historic Stihl stories you wish to share.

Imagine Maria in The Sound of Music, played by Julie Andrews running across an Alpen mountain top singing, “The Sound of Music.” Selina von Wertmuller, like Maria, was an Alpen orphan. Unlike Maria, Selina didn’t marry a wealthy man and move to America, Selina married a young German trucker, Andreas, and they founded a small trucking company in Zurich, Switzerland. Bear in mind, Gottlieb Daimler didn’t develop the first general-purpose flatbed truck or motorized cart until 1896, so the Stihl trucking company was probably something less than what comes to mind today when one thinks about a trucking company.

1896 Truck

1896 Truck

[1]On November 10, 1896, Selina gave birth to a boy; they named him Andreas, for the father. After finishing primary school, young Andreas moved to Germany and lived with family while attending secondary and grammar school. After suffering multiple injuries while serving on the front lines in WWI, Andreas earned a degree in mechanical engineering and was subsequently employed by firms providing steam engines for sawmills. It has been said that need is the mother of invention and Andreas saw and experienced the need for better tools, particularly a portable saw, to make work easier and more efficient in the timber industry.

Andreas first attempted a partnership with a friend and fellow engineer. The short-lived partnership was dissolved in 1926. Andreas, not dissuaded by the lack of success with a partner, formed a sole proprietorship, A. Stihl Engineering Consultancy, and developed the first portable tree felling machine the same year. 1926 is the year of the momentous event that would initially have minimal impact on Bavarian timber harvesting but would eventually become a true paradigm shattering occurrence worldwide. Officially, the first patent isn’t registered until 1928 but the auspicious beginning of the real Stihl story took root in 1926. Finally, as became the saying of the day, the saw was taken to the wood rather than the wood to the saw. That’s genius.

Andreas’ first hire was Alwin Fauser, who remained with the company until retirement, several decades later. One by one, Alwin would was joined by countless others. Andreas exuded high standards and expected no less from others. He hired only highly competent, diligent workers whom he trusted and respected. In spite of his occasional fits of rage brought on by inventor’s frustration, when he’d fire the top echelon in the company, and then hire them back within days, he ultimately earned the unconditional trust and respect of all and became the inspiration for thousands.

In a 1976 speech given in Phoenix, Arizona, Eva Mayr Stihl said the following about her father, Andreas Stihl—“In 1926 my father stood at the very beginning of his work and first, a company had to be established. He did this in the same year, with only one co-worker and a great deal of trust in the Lord. The first saws built had electric motors. Fortunately, they could be sold quickly, which provided the new Company with the necessary funds for continuing the development of a portable saw for the woodcutter.” That’s how Stihl in Germany began.

The first portable gasoline powered saw was introduced in 1929. Portable should not be confused with light; the first portable saw required at least two stout Bavarians to move it from tree to tree. What would be thought of as heavy by today’s standards was considered unbelievably light in 1929. Saws were sold as quickly as they could be produced. Looking forward to the 1930 trade fair in Leipzig, Andreas decided it appropriate to develop a company logo; the stump. He hired Stihl’s 25th employee that year.

1st Logo

1st Logo

Outwardly, Andreas was a quintessential laconic German, but there’s ample evidence of a soft heart. First he was always accompanied by a dog, usually a German Boxer. Legend has it, the only time the boxer (Alex) was known to be aggressive was when he once accompanied Andreas to the house of a debtor. Other evidence of his compassionate side surfaced during an early sales trip. Andreas returned from his first sales trip to Russia with no luggage. While the trip was a success and he took orders for several saws, he also witnessed extreme poverty and consequently gave away all non-essential personal items. It’s told he did this numerous times; that’s compassion.

A Stihl Engineering experienced a period of rapid expansion in product, people, family, and culture during the 1930s. Stihl patented and introduced several features on the chainsaw, including a swiveling bar, and later a swiveling carburetor, so the saw could be used to fell and buck–and automatic chain oiling. Perhaps at the urging of his wife, who’d given birth to a son, Hans Peter, Andreas’ company produced and sold washing machines for the home. It was during the washing machine days that Andreas realized the value of keeping his wife happy and a two year warranty, the latter unheard of before then. Even though the washing machine line was a success, production and sales lasted only a couple of years. Export sales to other European countries was exhausting chainsaw production capacity so Andreas decided to stop producing washing machines and focus on chainsaws, but not before the birth of his first daughter, Eva. Mrs. Stihl no doubt appreciated the convenience of a washing machine, particularly years later, during the lean war years, when she’d be tending to four children and over 2000 chickens.

A group of Stihl employees began to gather after work and sing. Perhaps their mood was elevated by Germany’s most popular drink; beer. The Stihl choir http://www.stihl.com/stihl-choir.aspx was officially founded in 1935, eventually recorded several albums, and is still in existence today. Thus the celebratory culture of Stihl is manifested.

Stihl Choir

Stihl Choir

Andreas always believed that the best advertising was word of mouth; users telling other users. Since Stihl had become an international company, Andreas was able to be convinced of the value of an advertising agency. Stihl contracted with its first advertising agency in 1936 and developed a new logo. Keeping with Andreas’ philosophy, Stihl’s early advertising and product literature included customer testimonials, a precursor to today’s “Real People Stihl People” campaign.

logo wood disc

The first Stihl saws were exported to North America in 1932 but it wasn’t until the fall of 1936 that Andreas Stihl made his legendary sales trip across Canada. After arriving by ship, perhaps in Nova Scotia, he had no trouble selling all fifteen of his demonstration models to nearby saw mills, which he’d soon realize was a mistake. He then traveled four thousand miles to the west coast of Canada, the region known worldwide for its mammoth trees, having in hand only drawings of his revolutionary product. Based on the schematics, Bloedel, Stewart, and Welch, of Vancouver, Andreas’ primary target for the trans-Atlantic trip, were keenly interested in becoming the Canadian importer, but insisted on first seeing the actual product in operation. Andreas then backtracked across the entire length of Canada, purchased several of the saws he’d sold only days earlier, returned to Vancouver with the repurchased demos, and sealed the deal.

Andreas Stihl, having traveled over sixteen thousand miles inside Canada to sell fifteen saws, after successfully establishing Stihl’s first importer in the western hemisphere, and in doing so, proving that Andreas Stihl was not only a brilliant engineer and inventor, but also a tenacious salesman, boarded the ship for home. It’s likely he still holds the record for miles traveled to sell fifteen saws. Several years later, inspired by Andreas, a US distributor would exhibit a similar pattern using an Piper Cub. But, of a more immediate nature following Andreas’ legendary trip back and forth across Canada, the D.J. Smith Company of Seattle, Washington was established as the first Stihl dealer in the United States under the name of Mill & Mine Supply.

The Mall Tool Company of Chicago, while not an importer, was established as Stihl’s first “partner” in the US in the 1930s. That relationship was meaningful but short-lived, lasting until WWII when Stihl lost all patent protections, which provided great benefit for US manufacturers, who quickly copied Stihl’s patented designs. In a letter dated April 5th, 1948 from Arthur Mall of Mall Tool Company to Andreas Stihl, Mr. Mall writes, “All of the saws made in the United States and Canada and used during WWII were more or less a copy of your design of chain saw. Most of the chains that are being used today are a copy of your design.”

That’s just a glimpse of the genius, compassion, and tenacity of Andreas Stihl. The same traits have been genetically carried through to the next generation of Stihls.

Stihl continued to experiment with a variety of products including go carts and tractors but eventually focused on handheld. Stihl now produces a wide variety of outdoor handheld power tools, powered by both gasoline and battery. While the primary and only authorized use of Stihl engines is for the their products, Stihl engines have been seen on go carts, hovercraft, gyrocopters, and most interestingly when mounted on a 1974 twin engine French design airplane, the Crici.[2]

cricri

 

 

 

 

 

 

To say that Stihl being #1 for seven years straight is amazing is akin to saying that a 7’ tall basketball player dunking a basketball is amazing. Based on Stihl’s humble but promising beginning and then the numerous innovations and accomplishments since, while highly impressive, being #1 isn’t amazing, it was earned and now expected. However, meeting expectations is seldom easy. Stihl’s ingenious accomplishments feed an ever increasing level of expectation of the brand. It has been eighty years and the record would lead one to believe that Stihl is up to the task.

It was 1958 before Stihl was re-introduced in America. In Blog 2 you’ll read about two Jersey boys, lifelong friends with deep patriotic roots, who traveled to Germany, struck a deal with Andreas Stihl and returned with a one page contract that endured for over fifteen years.

 

[1] Stihl-page 1

[2] Air Progress-August 1974 Page 59

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