The First Man of Stihl – Sort of
Roger Maris had recently broken Babe Ruth’s record, much to the dismay of most Yankee fans, they’d preferred that the record stand, and if it was to be broken, let Mantle be the one. Cassius Clay, after cruising to the Gold at the 1960 Olympics, was beginning the long-lasting spar with Howard Cosell, the Russians were building a missile base in Cuba, Bob Dylan was inspired to pen the lyrics to “The Times They are a Changin,’ and Stihl American needed someone focused on sales.
Years later, when a Stihl salesman walked through a dealer’s door, he’d often times be greeted with, “There’s the man of Stihl.” A few bolder Stihl salesman would sign their name with the initials MOS. Of course Andreas Stihl was the first man of Stihl, but in this instance we’re talking about the many road warriors who combed the country-side looking for establishments willing to carry Stihl.
Becoming a Stihl dealer in the early days meant displaying a chainsaw or two, selling the only model available, stocking a handful of starter parts, possessing rudimentary technical skills, having an untiring work ethic, and a genuine relationship with rugged, no nonsense loggers. The initial challenge was getting distributors to carry Stihl and make them available for sale by their army of territory managers.
Legions of road warriors now claim to be the first to have introduced Stihl to a particular region, state, or county in America. For most, Stihl was but a page in a thick binder with information about the many vendors they represented. To most at the time, a sale was a sale, and to sell a chainsaw meant little more than selling a lawn mower, or a case of air filters. And for some, selling a German saw posed unnecessary risk. For most, selling Stihl wouldn’t significantly improve their take-home pay. This wasn’t the case with Gordon Williams and Harding Smith.
With the financial backing of the Stihl family secured, Gordon and Harding had a second chance at success. Harding’s future success selling parts depended on Gordon’s success selling saws. Gordon had Harding’s support with any strategy to increase saw sales. Gordon, having learned from his earlier experience during the Tull-Williams era chose a different strategy. He decided to significantly increase the sales staff. Depending on one’s point of view he doubled or quadrupled the size of the Stihl American sales department. At the time, Gordon was the only sales person and he was spending half his time managing the business part of Stihl American. Well, Gordon had an administrative assistant, so to speak. His wife kept the books at home while attending to their two young sons and the apple of his eye, the daughter. So, the addition of a full time sales person meant a doubling or quadrupling of the sales efforts for Stihl American.
While Stihl was already a hit in the narrowly defined heavy logging parts of the country, Gordon’s vision was for Stihl to be sold in all parts of America. Gordon realized it would take a special person to convince regional distributors to carry Stihl, and likewise to inspire regional salesmen, traveling solo across the country, to make blind sales calls on small-engine shops, service stations, rental yards, and sell a saw manufactured in Germany. Most owners of small engine shops had served in WWII and many had served in Germany. A few had lost brothers in the Great War.
It’s not known if Gordon wrote the job description for the first Stihl salesman with a particular person in mind or if, with a particular person in mind, he wrote the job description. Based on Gordon’s proclivity for loyalty to friends and family, it’s likely that he had Ernie Rainey, a childhood friend, high school classmate, and captain of the Ridgewood football team in mind; and for good reason.
After graduation from Ridgewood, Ernie attended the University of New Hampshire before serving in the Navy during WWII as a physical training instructor. After the War he returned to the UNH, was student body president, played on the undefeated UNH football team, was inducted into the UNH hall of fame, and married Miss New Hampshire. You’re beginning to get the picture. After graduation from UNH, he was drafted by the New York Giants but declined the offer because he could make more money selling for Spalding Sporting Goods and working as a life-guard in New Hampshire by summer and Florida by winter.
Ernie wasn’t particularly tall by today’s standards, a little over 6’ but he was a brute of a man, as thick as he was wide and a neck that extended straight below his ears to heavily muscled shoulders. His smile was toothy and genuine and his laugh could fill a stadium. He had giant bone-crushing hands but his hand shake was only firm, not painful, and always included a simultaneous back slap. He claimed to do 50 push-ups every morning; just by looking at him, I’d say he did more like 500. I’m thinking that had he gone pro, he could have been a mentor to Dick Butkus.
Stihl regularly holds national sales conferences and salesmen from all over America meet, often times for the first time. The introduction usually includes one’s name, distributor working for, and the area they cover. Some in the sparsely populated west still cover entire states, but most territories are much smaller and some cover only a few counties. Ernie, the predecessor to thousands who would follow and become the revered Man of Stihl to their dealers, was responsible for the entire United States, including Alaska and Hawaii. He traveled millions of miles by car and air and since hotels were few and far between in those days, Ernie occasionally slept in airport lounges or rental cars. He quickly earned the trust and became friends with the many distributors established throughout America and soon began to be invited into the homes of his customers, Stihl distributors. Whatever story is told by the men of Stihl today, it’s likely that Ernie has been there and done that multiple times long ago.
Much like when they played football at Ridgewood, Ernie and Gordon were a team—it was oftentimes difficult to know where one ended and the other began. Gordon would eventually author a book, “Winning Sales.” Just as it is with the job description of the first Stihl salesman in America, it’s impossible to know if the book was written for or inspired by Ernie.
Technically speaking, Ernie may not have been the first, but he was the certainly the inspiration for many Men of Stihl who followed in his legendary footsteps. By 1965 Stihl American would be serving over forty-five distributors throughout America. The times, they were a changin’ and for the better.
Soon, Gordon would need a technical specialist. He would come from Germany and be just as colorful, in a different way, than Ernie.