Stan Crader

Author & Lecturer on Writing About Rural America

Stihl in America Blog 2

At possibly the same time that Andreas Stihl was making his trek across Canada, Gordon Williams was playing football at Ridgewood High in Ridgewood, NJ. His teammates included several who would eventually join him selling Stihl at Stihl America, but that would be nearly twenty years later. Much would occur between Gordon’s high school football days, Andreas’ tenacious trek across Canada, and Stihl America–the most significant being WWII.

Ridgewood High Football Team

Ridgewood High Football Team

In the meantime, Andreas’ many successful sales trips resulted in dramatic growth for A. Stihl Manufacturing in Stuttgart, Germany. Pictured is Andreas standing proudly with his team of technicians outside the Stuttgart factory. The War initially reduced sales for Stihl and several workers had to be dismissed, with worse occurring later. Since Stuttgart was a major industrial center, Royal Airforce bombers indiscriminately destroyed factories of any nature—A. Stihl was not spared and suffering the same fate as all the others, completely destroyed. As the German saying goes, a new broom sweeps clean, and in Stihl’s case, a new bomb swept clean. Fortuitously, Andreas had already begun moving operations to a village just outside Stuttgart–the destructive bombings accelerated plans for the move to what would become Stihl’s permanent world headquarters—an abandoned paper mill in the Rems River valley near Waiblingen.

Factory 1940

Factory 1940

 

 

 

Andreas 1930s factory photo

 

 

Following high school, Gordon first attended Wesleyan University and then at the outset of WWII, transferred to the Citadel. Being a relatively large and physically fit young man, he was assigned a machine gun and lugged it from skirmish to skirmish across France and Germany, losing many close combat friends along the way. Coincidentally, he was recognized as a graduate of Wesleyan nearly the same day he went ashore in France. Along with the 7th Army—100th infantry, he fought his way across France and Germany, and by war’s end, ended up just northeast of Stuttgart, near a town to which he’d return in 1958, coincidentally or providentially, Waiblingen.

After War’s end, Gordon finished his military duty serving in Germany as an English teacher. During his post-war time in Germany he became a temporary quasi-guardian of the Seyfert family, of Seyfert corrugated box fame, a relationship that would be beneficial to Stihl in later years.

WWII was a worldwide crisis and that resulted in countless material losses, shifts in provincial borders, and the loss of nearly 85 million people when including death by war related disease and famine. Even though A. Stihl Manufacturing lost their primary manufacturing facility and possibly of more value, their patent protection, Andreas, persistence personified, picked up the pieces and continued on his methodical innovative journey.

During the War, A. Stihl manufactured thousands of saws for the German government. Those saws, the manufacturer of which, once the life-blood for A. Stihl during War times, and eventually the reason Andreas was temporary incarcerated by the French, became the bane of A. Stihl. Saws purchased by the German government during the war began to show up and soon temporarily flooded the chainsaw market. Andreas, ever the finder of solutions, developed a single cylinder diesel engine and began manufacturing and selling tractors to generate revenue and keep the company afloat. Andreas learned the critical importance of service after the sale while selling tractors. It was possibly during that time when service became a prime requirement for Stihl sales. The tractor era was successful for more than ten years but was discontinued so Andreas could once again focus on hand-held, his original and primary passion.

diesel engine

 

 

Tractor

 

 

Andreas didn’t let the success of the tractor quench his quest to build a lighter and better tree felling machine. First the BL and then the lighter BLK were introduced in the early 1950s. BLK stands for benzin, leicht, klein, or gasoline, light, small. The BLK was Stihl’s first legitimate one-man gasoline chainsaw and eventually lead to the inspiration for the reintroduction of Stihl in America.

BLK

 

 

About the same time that Andreas was developing the BL and BLK, Gordon received an honorable discharge from the Army, and held a variety of sales jobs. He found his niche while working for Al Tull’s Estate Equipment Company. While at Estate Equipment Gordon learned the outdoor power tool market, and gained an understanding for the value of regional wholesale distributors. During a trip to Oregon to visit the Oregon chain manufacturer, Gordon observed loggers using a German made saw that they claimed were made with Swiss perfection. The saws, of course, were Stihl’s BLK, and the loggers, perhaps unable to correctly pronounce the name, but realizing its German origin, equated the quality to that of the precision of a Swiss watch, not realizing that the saw’s namesake was actually born in Switzerland. The chain on the saws was possibly a copy of Stihl’s no longer protected saw chain patents. All that was important to the loggers was the quality and cutting capacity of the product. They expressed a frustration at not being able to easily acquire new saws or replacement parts on the rare occasion when a saw failed. Gordon’s experience at Estate Equipment helped him realize an opportunity. The grand plan began to take shape in his mind’s eye.

By then, Gordon’s childhood friend and high school class mate, Harding Smith, had joined him at Estate Equipment. The two of them had aspired to chart their own destinies since high school, and shared their ambitious plan with Al Tull. Al, twenty five years their senior, was considered a mentor by both. Al had come to admire Gordon and Harding’s character qualities, so much so, that he offered to partner with them in their import endeavor. Their joint venture was known as Tull-Williams —Gordon Williams the driving force, Al Tull the business partner, and close friend Harding Smith, the financial partner.

During the ensuing months, a series of letters were exchanged between Gordon and Andreas’ export manager Reinhold Guhl. An invitation from Stihl to Tull-Williams representatives, Gordon and Harding was offered.

Harding represented the financial part of the team. Harding’s great-grandfather Samuel Smith, an Irish immigrant worked for both Roger’s and Danforth locomotive in Paterson NJ, before forming his own company, Smith Engines.  Danforth and Rogers, with Smith designed engines, manufactured The Texas and The General, both of the locomotives involved in the Great Locomotive Chase of the Civil War, participants in which were awarded the very first Congressional Medals of Honor by President Lincoln, and featured in a 1956 Disney movie—The Great Locomotive Chase.

Gordon was the charismatic marketer of the team. Gordon’s great-grandfather, Henry Augustus Williams, was a confident of President Lincoln, prominent lawyer in Paterson NJ and the Civil War mayor of Paterson NJ. Augusts’ father-in-law owned a hardware store that sold agriculture equipment. At the time, Paterson, having been established and planned by Alexander Hamilton, was the industrial center of the United States. Gordon’s garden state lineage included politics, law, industry, and agriculture. His roots were deep and diverse and his character sound.

The extraordinary qualities of both Samuel and Henry had survived multiple generations and were manifested when Gordon and Harding boarded their first flight to Germany to establish an international business agreement. Eventually, as the result of a tiny component of international trade, thousands of lives in America would be dramatically enhanced economically and vocationally. The brand, already number one in the world, would soon be manufactured in America and become the leading brand everywhere.

Blog 3 will cover the Gordon’s return to Germany—this time in a Pan Am Constellation rather than a troop ship. And the one-page contract.

constellation

 

 

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