Stihl in America – Blog 4 – Persistence
It was men such as Gordon Williams who inspired Norman Vincent Peale to pen “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Gordon, the positive thinker and quintessential relationship builder, immediately reached out to those with whom he was familiar from his days at Estate Equipment and certain to be interested in handling a fine line of precision crafted chainsaws–Stihls. He proudly informed them that he had officially been appointed Stihl’s agent for America. Al Tull, their mentor and silent business partner, provided the operation with temporary warehouse space and walked them through the filings necessary to import product from Germany. Al, near retirement by then, chose to watch rather than actively participate in the enterprise. Harding prepared a partitioned section of Al’s warehouse to begin receiving chainsaws, saw chain, and spare parts from Germany.
Gordon and Harding’s plan called for regional distributors or agents to be established throughout North America. Andreas Stihl’s immutable requirement was that the end user be trained regarding the proper use of the saw and that spare parts be readily available to support inevitable break downs, a requirement that stood the test of time and became one of Stihl’s keys to success. By 1965, forty seven distribution centers, or agents for Stihl, would be established throughout the United States. While each served to establish Stihl in America, and laid the foundation for future success, only one of the forty seven originally established, Crader Distributing of Marble Hill, Missouri, survives at the time of this writing.
Gordon began an exhaustive travel schedule, first visiting those already familiar with Stihl, known in sales and the proverbial low-hanging-fruit. Andy Davidson, owner of United Welding Company of Wellington, Ohio was the first distributor to be established in America. United Welding served Northern Ohio for more than five years.
Reade Electric, Walterboro, S.C., was the second distributorship to be established. Reade, dealing primarily in Milwaukee electric tools was unique in that they handled only the electric saws. Jack Reade’s 1959 trip to Germany resulted in him being the first American distributor to visit the Stihl headquarters and his decision to carry the line of electric saws. Jack and his wife, Elizabeth, traveling in a crew cab GMC pickup, established Stihl dealers with the electric saws from Maine to Texas and all states east. Eventually, sales of electric saws were handled by full line distributors who dealt directly with Reade.
One of Gordon’s early trips included a cross continent flight returning to Hood River, Oregon and a sales call on a former logger and by then small engine shop owner, Virgil (Virg) Hatfield. Virg knew the major players in the northwest logging industry and already a long-time user of Stihl chainsaws. Virg had been able to acquire BLKs during the 1950s, probably imported through Canada. It’s likely that Virg is one of the loggers who inspired Gordon to make the trip to Germany. Gordon appointed Virg as both a distributor for the northwest and an agent for Stihl. As a distributor, Virg began establishing Stihl dealers, mostly logging companies with the capacity to purchase large volumes of saws. As a Stihl agent, Virg assisted Gordon in establishing distributors throughout Washington, Oregon, Montana, South and North Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, and Alaska. Virg utilized a Piper Cub to travel throughout his vast territory, making him the first of many ‘flying’ Stihl distributors.
Gordon and Harding ran full page ads in “Chain Saw Age,” the premier chainsaw magazine at the time soliciting Stihl distributors nationwide. Response to the ad provided a long list of promising leads. In less than two years Gordon established more than a dozen additional Stihl Distributors across America. Among them was Aldridge Power Company who hosted the first Stihl Distributor Meeting.
Aldridge Power Mower Company of Durham, N.C., covering North Carolina and Southern Virginia. Aldridge, founded in 1954 by brothers Luke and Walter Aldridge and John Woody. Luke was the general manager, Walter the service manager, and John, took charge of sales. John, having played football at Duke, retained his cement block physic long after his playing days ended. His powerful build combined with an effervescent personality and refined swashbuckling aura, gave him a natural room filling, commanding presence. After enjoying several successful years establishing a network of Stihl dealers throughout the Aldrich territory, John acquired control of the company and renamed it Mid-Atlantic Stihl.
Gordon continued to personally follow up on leads generated by the magazine ads, establishing a vast Stihl distribution network throughout America. By early 1960 he’d added the following to the growing list of Stihl distributors: Brady Saw Mill Supply, Gassaway, W.VA., J.C. Cannon, Clinton, S.C., Meier and White, Atlanta, GA., N.J., Ozark Equipment, Rolla, MO., Gulf Coast Distributors, Biloxi, MS., Art Gary, Canton, NY., Jack “Chief” Beatty Co., Denver, CO., Crader Equipment Co., Marble Hill, MO., Ahlborn Equipment Company, Sayner, WI., Ball Sales and Service, Mount Morris, MI., Ralph A Laubach, Mllerstown, PA.,and Farm and Forest, Cincinnati, OH. and Whiting Distributing Co. Pulaski, PA.
Most business failures are due to lack of business or poor financial management. Some businesses brush with failure due to success that exceeds the company’s financial capacity to meet all of the requirements for rapid growth. And so it was with the Tull-Williams company. Gordon and Harding enjoyed more success than they could capitalize. Travel expenses mounted while Gordon continued to establish additional distributors. Even though the Stihl saws were more reliable than any other brand available, they weren’t trouble free. When technical problems arose, in order to establish the brand relatively blemish free, Tull-Williams stood behind the product beyond customer’s expectations. The expense of doing so mounted. Despite the fact that Harding came from wealth, there was a limit to his personal resources. Unfortunately, during the second year of hard earned success, expenses finally exhausted cash reserves.
Gordon and Harding began 1960 by negotiating an investment by Thermo Dynamics, Incorporated, a company located in Colorado Springs, CO. The details of the agreement aren’t available, but it was quickly evident that the new company didn’t intend to fulfill its commitments. The Stihl family, did not appreciate the direction Stihl was headed in America with TDI as a partner to Tull-Williams. The Stihl family, realizing the value of Gordon and Harding, and the foundation they’d laid at great personal sacrifice, spent the better part of 1961 wrestling the exclusive contractual rights back. Even though TDI was represented by Albert Einstein’s personal attorney, he was no match for the Stihl team. By early 1962, the one page assignable contract was secured. Gordon and Harding’s finances were shored up by the Stihl family and rapid success resumed. Stihl American and Stihl Parts, the two companies that would solidify Stihl in America during the next decade were established.
Stihl American, with Gordon as President, owned 40% by Stihl and 60% by Gordon and Stihl Parts, with Harding as President, owned 40% by Stihl and 60% by Harding were born. Stihl American and Stihl Parts frugally operated out of the Al Tull’s warehouse until growth required larger accommodation, at which time both companies moved to a warehouse rented from Joe Minarik, a local cabinet maker, who’d recently refurbished an abandoned warehouse in East Patterson, NJ, not too far from Ridgewood, Gordon and Harding’s childhood stomping grounds. The boys never strayed far from their roots physically or ethically.