Stihl in America Blog 15 – Opportunity and Commitment
Glen Banks was born November 25, 1902 in Columbus, Ohio to Lewis Banks, a railroad conductor, and Barbara Calhoun Banks, reportedly a relative to the late John C Calhoun, who was famous for serving as vice president for both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.
Glenn earned a degree in Forestry Management in Mansfield, Ohio, near where the legendary Johnny Appleseed supposedly planted one of his many apple trees. Immediately following graduation, Glen accepted a position with the city of St. Louis managing the trees in the city’s many beautiful parks, including the famed Forest Park, known then and now as one of the great urban parks of America.
While attending college he fell for the charms of a Mansfield girl, Henrietta Freese. Henrietta waited until Glen’s job with the city was secure and he’d proven to be a dependable provider before accepting his marriage proposal. They were married November 1927 and settled in an apartment with a view of Forest Park, where Glen spent most of his time, and only a few blocks from St. Mary’s hospital, where Henrietta gave birth to their son, Jack Banks, July 1930.
Doors seem to open for those with extraordinary skills and ethics and especially for those willing to make commitments and follow the opportunity. Through the arborist network, Kansas Gas and Electric learned of the job that Glenn was doing in St. Louis. KG&E, in the process of establishing electric service in and around the Wichita area, needed right-of-ways cleared so electric lines could be run to provide electric service throughout Wichita and surrounding communities. Glenn eagerly responded to the call and, sensing opportunity, headed west.
Although he was born in Denison, Texas—Dwight Eisenhower was only two when his parents moved to Kansas, where they raised him. Dwight disappointed his pacifist parents by attending West Point, but then made them proud by commanding the US Forces in Europe, followed by being elected President of the United States, and then creating the inter-state highway system, tailored after Germany’s famed autobahn. Many today think that communities have been established along the interstate system. In fact, the reverse is true, the highway system was created to join established communities and facilitate the efficient flow of goods north, south, east, and west.
The first interstate highway, a short segment of- 70 was completed in 1956, west of Topeka, near Eisenhower’s boyhood home. By 1970 a 424 mile segment of I-70 stretched across the entire state of Kansas, the longest contiguous interstate corridor at the time.
While driving west on I-70, one will notice a significant drop in population density and a gradual geological transformation once crossing the north/south I-35 artery. Annual rainfall west of I-35 drops off precipitously and there’s visual evidence along the entire I-35 corridor. I-35 connects cities that were the last stop before continuing west. Even today, few cities of any size exist between I-35 and I-25, except in the petroleum fields.
Wichita, situated on I-35 and the Ar-Kansas River, is one of those great legendary towns that made up what was once known as the western frontier, the last source of supplies before heading for California and the destination for countless cattle drives. Wichita is as far west as Glenn and Henrietta moved before, like the Tallgrass of the prairie, established deep, lasting, and permanent roots.
Under new leadership, KG&E decided to outsource the right-of-way maintenance and clearing. Rather than see the outsourcing as an elimination of his job, Glen made lemonade out of lemons, formed Banks Tree Service and earned KG&E’s business. While KG&E expanded rapidly into surrounding communities and counties; Banks Tree Service, devoted and committed to KG&E, added crews and equipment accordingly.
Jack E and Mariann Asmann met while attending Wichita’s East High School. Jack and Mariann married in 1951 just prior to Jack’s two year US Army deployment to Japan. Immediately after his return from Japan, Jack joined Glenn in the business while attending Wichita University where he earned a Liberal Arts degree in Business. Jack and Glen were a team, one with a business degree and the other forestry.
In a business decision designed to reduce their cost of equipment, Jack and Glenn purchased a small white building on Wichita’s East Central Street and established a small equipment business, aptly named—Central Equipment, where they sold many of the items they used at Banks Tree service. Doing so reduced their cost of equipment at Banks Tree while retail sales of the equipment augmented their profit, which they used to diversify by investing in real-estate and rental property. Eventually, through hard work and smart management, they had two businesses—retail sales of chain saws, lawn mowers, kerosene heaters, log splitters, go karts, and the core business, Banks Tree Service.
Just as word had gotten to KG&E about Glenn, word had gotten to Stihl America about the volume of Homelites being sold by Central Equipment. It was early 1967 when Rainer Gloeckle called on Glen and Jack. After a brief introduction, Jack asked Bill Hildebrandt, the foreman of his tree service, a quintessential lumber jack of a man, large and knowledgeable about saws, to join them. Hildebrandt, sporting a German name and no-nonsense demeanor, but devoted to Homelite, was willing to listen. Jack’s young son, Stan, looked on.
Stan recalls Rainer first got the attention of all by tossing a running Stihl 08 across the parking lot and then leaving it lying upside down and still idling. While the saw continued to idle, Rainer, using another saw, demonstrated the ease with which a Stihl 08 could be dismantled and while doing so showed them the precision fit of the parts. And then Rainer pulled out the velvet Seagrams bag containing the cylinder the ring-free piston and demonstrated the close tolerances of a the Mahle chrome impregnated piston and cylinder. Actions always speak louder than words.
Glen, getting along in the years and knowing he’d be retiring soon, gave the decision making to Jack. Jack, being a bit of a skeptic, for which Kansans are well known, needed a few days to consider putting Stihls on his tree service trucks. An avid and accomplished bowler, Jack spent a few nights at the lanes contemplating the opportunity. With the endorsement of Bill Hildebrandt, Jack and Glen decided to give Stihl a try by equipping several of their crews with Stihls.
Soon afterwards, Rainer convinced Jack to become the first Stihl distributor for Kansas and Nebraska, but the opportunity came with another difficult decision—selling Bank’s Tree Service and devoting all of their attention to Stihl. This was a much bigger decision and would require selling a company with over 70 employees, an enterprise that represented Glen’s lifetime achievement. Jack and Glen, both Free Masons, likely consulted their fellow Masons with the decision.
Only a few months after equipping several of their Banks Tree Service trucks with Stihl, and learning more about Stihl Germany and Stihl American, and sensing the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a promising enterprise, Jack and Glen, with the consent of Henrietta and Mariann, made the decision to divest of all other business interests and commit to Stihl. The new business kept the name, Central Equipment, as a way to secure the legacy of what was started in the little white building on Wichita’s East Central Street. A new adventure was given birth. The Kansans proved to be up to the task.
I-35 divides Kansas running from the Oklahoma border just south of Wichita north to Kansas City—leaving about 90% of Central Equipment’s Kansas and Nebraska territory west of the line. Leaning on the reputation of Banks Tree Service, known throughout Kansas and Nebraska for being reliable and trustworthy, Jack hit the road convincing Homelite and McCulloch dealers to give Stihl a try. Since Jack was the former owner of a renowned arborist’s service, opening doors was made easier, but not necessarily easy.
Unlike the forests east of I-35, where they’re regularly harvested for lumber, the forests west of I-35 are coveted and parks have been established in the few places where trees are plentiful. Kansas is known for its Flint Hills, Nebraska for Chimney Rock, and both states for the ruts in the prairie desert floor made by wagons crossing along the famed Oregon Trail—neither is known for trees.
Like many others at the time, Jack left home on Monday and returned on Friday, leaving at home, Mariann, with their two children, Stan and Danna. At the time, Central Equipment was one of the largest Stihl distributors geographically but also with the fewest trees or people. The distance between towns was great and the widely dispersed towns were sparsely populated. The lack of trees didn’t quench Jack’s entrepreneurial spirit, “Trees don’t buy saws, people buy saws,” he was known to have said while sporting a confident grin.
With each new dealer came an order for a few saws, and with each saw sold at retail came parts sales, and eventually guide bars and saw chain, followed by other chainsaw accessories. As Central Equipment grew so did the staff, one employee at a time. Stihl slowly and methodically expanded the chainsaw and eventually introduced new categories of products, namely lawn care tools.
Stihl is unique in many advantageous ways. One of the features is family. While Stihl has grown to be the number one selling brand of outdoor handheld power tool, the company is still family owned and operated. And all of Stihl’s independent distributors are family owned and operated. Family members generally don’t join the business; they grow up in the business, which was the case with Jack and Mariann’s son, Stan.
Stan was able to observe Rainer Gloeckle’ s saw tossing demonstration because at the age of twelve, he was at Central doing janitorial chores. After working his way through several positions, including receiving, shipping, technical services, customer service, Stan hit the road calling on dealers throughout Central’s vast Kansas and Nebraska territory. Meanwhile, Jack hired a new office assistant. Lori caught Stan’s eye, and even with knowledge of the business, and the commitment on Stan’s part to serve Central’s dealers, the two became a couple, and eventually married, adding another husband and wife team at Central Equipment.
By the time Jack reached retirement age he recognized that in order for a distributor to provide all of the necessary services for a dealer and help them operate efficiently so that they could profitably compete, it would be better that Stihl distributors merge and create greater efficiencies of scale for themselves and expand their services to the Stihl dealer. To this end Jack approached a bordering distributor (Crader Distributing) with the idea of merging. The concept was successfully presented to Stihl. Crader and Central Equipment merged in what was the first of many mergers between Stihl distributors resulting in Jack’s vision of greater economies of scale for the distributor and expanded services to the dealer. Today there are ten Stihl distributors where there were once over forty, Stihl is the number one selling brand of outdoor power tool in America and the market share in Kansas and Nebraska leads to the country.
While no longer selling Stihl, the Banks spirit of commitment continues. Stan and Lori gave birth to Alaina and Jeremy. Jeremy is now serving in the United States Marine Corps. A greater commitment doesn’t exist.