Stan Crader

Author & Lecturer on Writing About Rural America

Stihl in America Blog 13- The Gold Standard

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Kathryn, Alphonse, Rita, and Hugo Brandt

Missouri’s Rhineland lies along the last hundred-mile stretch of America’s longest river, the mighty Missouri. Big Mo begins 2300 miles upstream at the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin rivers, near Three Forks, Montana. While the French were the first Europeans to explore and establish settlements along the entire length of the river, German immigrants, following soon thereafter, settled primarily along the last hundred miles between Jefferson City, Missouri’s capital, and St. Louis, where the Missouri flows into the Mississippi.

The most well-known village along this stretch is Herman, named in honor of Hermann Arminius, the German warrior whose armies defeated Caesar Augustus’ troops in the Battle of Teutoburg. Most Hermann settlers weren’t warriors; the most practical skill they brought with them from the old country was that of growing excellent grapes, for the making of award winning wine. Within ten years following the arrival of the Germans, the Hermann area became one of the world’s largest wine making regions. A little known fact outside of Missouri is that during the 1851 Vienna World’s Fair, Missouri wines took 8 of the 12 gold medals. The French weren’t happy.

Never to be bested by America, the French grafted root stock from the World’s Fair champion vineyards which were growing abundantly on the steep Missouri River valley hillsides. Unbeknownst to the French, the grafted rootstock carried a root louse that had no affect while growing in the Missouri Rhineland, but once in France, became a plague, and nearly destroyed vineyards across all of France. A pair of Missourians discovered a cure and eventually an estimated ten million ‘cured’ root stocks were shipped from Missouri to Europe, saving the French wine industry. In a show of appreciation and recognition, the French bestowed the Cross of the Legion of Honor and the Order of Knighthood on one of the men responsible for saving France’s vineyards. Why they didn’t Knight both is a mystery.

Missourian’s of German ancestry enjoy claiming to have saved the French wine industry almost as much as they like to take credit for the root stock that was transplanted from Missouri to France and then subsequently to California. French sommeliers know the truth and will admit it when questioned, few Californians will concede. The author’s favorite wine is that which is on sale and is known to drink wine from a bottle, box, or Mason jar.

Chamois, Missouri is located just downstream from where the Osage River flows into the Missouri, and a few miles upstream from Hermann. Chamois was named after Chamonix, France, due to its Alpine scenery, steep forested hillsides and lush river bottom valleys, and the fact that the French were first. While the village is named for the French, the inhabitants are clearly of German descent and culture. And so it makes sense that the local chainsaw dealer would sell Stihl.

While most German immigrants left their warrior notions behind, at least one did not. And so it was that during a Church Christmas party one of them shot and killed Julius Billot, Rita’s grandfather on her mother’s side. The shooter was summarily hung, the last to have been hung in Osage County, so it’s likely the warrior gene has been sufficient snuffed out. Rita’s grandfather on her father’s side survived and was the father of Joe Keilholz. Joe was Rita’s father. Rita was the wife of Hugo, and Hugo the brother of Katherine’s husband, Alphonse. Rita’s father, Joe, was the one who went for a plane ride with a soon-to-be famous mail carrier. But that was before Rita was born. Verstehen sie?

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Joe watches the mail man prop the engine

It was about 1925 when Joe, Rita’s father, while working one of his Missouri River bottom fields, heard a familiar sound, a sputtering engine, but it was coming from an unfamiliar place, the sky. Joe watched while the pilot landed the belching plane safely in a nearby field, and then curiously but cautiously approached. It turned out to be a de Havilland DH4 mail plane with a fouled spark plug. As luck would have it, for the pilot, Joe had a car and took the pilot into town where he caught the next train into St. Louis. A few days later the pilot returned with new spark plugs, got the plane running and offered Joe a ride for his trouble. Joe told the pilot he thought it best to make sure the plane was running well before going for a ride. The pilot grinned and understood but took down Joe’s phone number. Joe was evidently well to do judging by the fact that he had both a car and a telephone.

Several weeks later the pilot called and let Joe know he’d be flying that same route again, that the plane was running fine, and the offering for a ride was still good. This time Joe agreed and placed a large white mattress sheet in the field with the smoothest turf. That afternoon the pilot cruised up the river, found the field with the sheet, landed, and took Joe for his first and last airplane ride. Joe and the pilot were then friends for life.

A short time later that same pilot invited Joe to a party to be held in St. Louis. The party was in celebration of the first trans-Atlantic flight. The mail carrier pilot, you see, was Charles Lindbergh.

A few years later Rita was born to the wife of the man who’d flown with Lindbergh. She still has the photograph of her dad, Joe, standing on Lindbergh’s plane watching Lindbergh hand prop the engine. When a pilot sees a long field the thought crosses his mind, wonder if a plane could land there. There’s no need to wonder when looking at the field near Brandt Chainsaw located just outside Chamois, Mo, a plane and pilot can and has landed there—twice. And while Lindbergh wasn’t just any pilot, the Brandts aren’t just any dealer.

Like so many of that era, Alphonse and Hugo Brandt were loggers first, and chainsaw retailers second. In those days a logger wouldn’t think of buying a saw from someone who didn’t know saws, and how would one know saws without first having used one. Once Alphonse and Hugo tired of cutting staves, they decided to open a small business selling tires, guns, and saws. The only qualification necessary to sell tires in those days was good credit and the grit and stamina to change tires on cars, trucks, and tractors. They had both. The only additional qualification necessary to sell saws was the intelligence to repair them and the willingness to do so at all hours of the day. Again, Hugo and Alphonse were more than qualified; they set the gold standard for customer service. And their sons continue to do so today.

Alphonse and Hugo, with little more than an 8th grade education but a lifetime of learning and gifted with uncommon common sense, officially started their business in 1962 and cleverly named the enterprise Brandt Chainsaw. It was never a question of customers finding their business because everyone knew where it was, at Hugo’s house. And you don’t find something if you know where it is. Hugo’s house is located at the end of a long, gravel, creek-crossing driveway that comes off of a gravel road a few miles from Chamois. Since they’d been using Remington saws, they first chose Remington as the brand to sell.

Their reputation of integrity and expertise was widely known so numerous vendors began calling on them and offering them dealerships on a variety of timber and farm related products. The brothers chose to stay in their lane, so to speak, and focus on selling items that they could sell and service without making a significant capital investment—tires, saws, belts, and several small wear items. They’d only been in business a few months when a vendor salesman, who also represented Stihl in another area, suggested they consider Stihl saws, explaining how a Remington was really a Mall and a Mall simply a copy of a Stihl, but that Stihl was the real deal. The brothers contacted their local Stihl distributor, Don Crader, and today claim the call to be one of the most important calls in the history of their fifty plus year-old success story.

By late 1962 the Stihl 07 was in production, the first Stihl model sold by the Brandt brothers, and was an excellent seller for them until introduction of the 08, a much lighter albeit slightly less powerful unit. They quickly became the largest Stihl dealer in Missouri, and possibly the largest sellers of chainsaws of any brand in Missouri. While the 07 was a more powerful machine, the Brandt’s pushed people toward the 08 because of its unparalleled power per pound feature, which turned out to be a good move.

They’d sold over two hundred chainsaws by the time a technical problem with the 07, an issue fairly unique to southern Missouri, reared its ugly head. During hot and humid conditions the units were difficult or impossible to restart after having run a full tank of gas. Immediately after learning of the problem, Don Crader and Rainer, the Whiz Kid spent several days with the Brandt brothers and their customers diagnosing the problem, eventually determined to be vapor locking, a condition where the fuel is heated to the point that it becomes a gas and can’t be pulled into the saws fuel system. The fact that Stihl sent their top person to the scene endeared Stihl to the Brandts and likewise the Brandts to their customers, who’d grown accustomed to being abandoned by manufacturers when a technical problem arose. Eventually the vapor locking problem occurred in other areas but by then, thanks to the patient cooperation of the Brandts and Stihl’s quick reaction, a fix had been determined and available.

Over the years Rainer returned many times to the Brandts. When he’d learned of users experiencing a problem with a saw, he’d want to know if the same was occurring with the Brandt customers. And if so, he’d return to Chamois and work with the Brandt brothers to diagnose the issue. He did this for a couple of reasons; the Brandts had a knack for precisely describing the problem and the conditions under which they occurred. But most of all, Rainer enjoyed the Brandt hospitality. A visit to the Brandt operation always resulted in dinner with the entire Brandt family, some of whom could still speak a little German. To this day, Rainer recalls seeing a chicken running around the barn yard during the morning and being served that same chicken for dinner. Now that’s farm fresh, Rainer used to boast.

In those days chain clinics were a popular draw. Loggers and farmers would pile into Brandt’s shop building in hopes of learning the art of saw chain sharpening. There’d always be a blazing fire in the wood-burning stove, located in the center of the room. Since the shop had a dirt floor the walls didn’t always extend all of the way to the ground. To say the room had a draft is an understatement, but nobody complained; they were there to learn how to properly sharpen saw chain. The Brandts bought into the Chinese proverb about teaching a man to fish…and realized that people would be more satisfied with their saws if the chain was sharp. They’d traded for many a fine saw that the owner thought worthless due simply to a dull chain.

During the early days Crader Distributing always had a booth at Missouri’s state fair. Recall that Stihl was still a brand in its infancy in America. Most coming through the booth had heard very little of Stihl, those who had would be asked how they’d learned of Stihl. A map was always kept on display to show people the location of their nearest dealer. Owners of a Stihl would be asked where they’d made their purchase. The Brandts always held the record for people having driven the furthest to purchase a Stihl. The statement frequently repeated was that they’d gone to Chamois hearing of the good prices on saws but had returned since due to the service and hospitality. More than a few had driven over a hundred miles, passing several dealers along the way, simply to enjoy the Brandt experience. Today, fathers from all over the Midwest are taking their sons to the place where their father introduced them to Stihl—Chamois, Missouri.

When asked to share a memory of the early days selling Stihl, Rita tells the story of how after regular business hours Hugo and Alphonse would work on saws in their basement, which was also where the washing machine was. So, she’d have to wait until Hugo was finished working on saws, sometimes after midnight, before doing the laundry and then hanging it out to dry, sometimes only a few hours before daylight. When asked if Hugo ever started the saws in the basement, Rita just laughs and says, “Oh yes,” waves her hand in front of her nodding head, ”and the fumes?” The Brandt kids grew up living and literally breathing Stihl; Stihl is in their blood.

Business school libraries are full of books on best practices, sales and marketing techniques, advertising, promotions, and all things taught and thought necessary to be successful in business. And most benefit from all that has been written and is being taught. However, it’s doubtful that a Brandt would benefit from any of this teaching because they’re natural at doing that which results in success. The Brandts know that if they take care of the customer, the customer will take care of them. Word of mouth only works when customers are endeared to share an experience. Brandt experiences are shared by all. They do unto others what they know is the right thing to do with no expectation that the favor will be returned. They chose Stihl over fifty years ago. Dealers such as the Brandts and their loyalty to the brand, and Stihl’s loyalty to them are a significant reason Stihl is number one today. Just as Missouri wine was the Gold standard for wine, and Stihl is the Gold standard in power tools, the Brandt family is the Gold standard for full service dealers.

When asked the most striking thing about the Brandts, the most common reply is that they’re always smiling. People see and generally find that for which they’re looking. The Brandts look for and find joy. They love Stihl, and Stihl loves them.

 

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