Home > Featured Articles > Man of Stihl: Remembering the life and legacy of industry icon Fred J. Whyte
Fred J. Whyte

Man of Stihl: Remembering the life and legacy of industry icon Fred J. Whyte

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following excerpt was graciously provided by Stan Crader from his upcoming book, Stihl American. The book profiles the pioneers of Stihl’s reintroduction to America, including Fred J. Whyte.

By Stan Crader

For 20 years, Etta Whyte waited at home for her husband’s safe return. Al Whyte, a graduate of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police School, comparable to America’s advanced FBI training, served on Vancouver, British Columbia’s police force for more than 20 years before joining Titan. Al was Titan’s sales engineer responsible for Washington, Idaho and Montana. Since the new position was with an American company and required working in America, Al, Etta and their 8-year-old son Fred moved a few miles south, across the Washington state line.

After gaining considerable knowledge of the chainsaw and timber industries while serving Titan, McCulloch and Homelite, Al was hired by Stihl American to cover America’s Northwest, the world’s greatest timber region.

Al and Etta’s only son, Fred, watched and learned. During Fred’s undergraduate college summers, he interned at Homelite’s northwest branch office. It was a prescient beginning.

As is the case with all honorable Scotsmen, Fred mastered the bagpipes, simply referred to as ‘pipes’ by true Scotsmen. By the time he graduated from college, Fred had competed in and won several piping contests, the consequence of which was an offer by the University of Iowa for a staff teaching position and an opportunity to earn his Masters Degree.

The University of Iowa had a long-running tradition for its pipe band. When the enrollment of pipe-playing men dwindled during WWII, the university created an all-women’s pipe band. Fred’s teaching position was not awarded in order for him to play the pipes, but rather for him to direct the world’s largest all-women’s pipe band — 150 members strong. One of his students, only a couple of years younger, first caught his eye, then his heart, and then became his wife.

Newlyweds Fred and Karen — he just having completed a sales training curriculum with Datsun of America and she just settling into her position as the county nurse — received a life-changing phone call from Fred’s father, Al; opportunity was tapping at their door. Rainer Gloeckle, the Whiz kid, who Fred’s father had succeeded in the Northwest, was leaving Arkansas and returning to Germany. Al encouraged Fred to apply for the position.

In 1971, most people had yet to hear about Stihl, and those who had, couldn’t properly pronounce the name. A typical dealer display consisted of a three-saw rack with two of the saws used and dripping oil. Stihl was recognized and highly praised by many professional loggers, but Stihl’s market share was likely in the single digits. Stihl was nowhere near the leading brand it is today.

It’s possible that Fred had at one time begrudged his father for being forced to learn the pipes, but if so, he surely realized that it was the pipes that led him to Karen. And he had fond memories of the time he’d spent working at Homelite as an intern. To top off the prescient series of events that had taken place over the course of several years, Fred had used one of Stihl’s newest models, the S10, during a recent visit with his parents. All things considered, Fred realized his father usually knew what he was doing, and doing it for good reason. Fred and Karen rightly concluded it prudent to take Al’s advice and at least apply.

Fred flew to New Jersey for the interview. Gordon Williams picked him up at the airport in his 600 Mercedes Benz. Fred recalls getting stares while receiving the royal treatment and then getting into a Mercedes limousine. It’s not likely that any of Fred’s University of Iowa Masters program classmates would be treated to an interview such as the one Fred was about to attend. Rather than check into a hotel, Gordon took Fred to his home to meet the Williams family. While watching an NFL preseason game, the first American man of Stihl, Ernie Rainey, joined them.

Based on what each had heard about the other through Fred’s father, it was almost as if they’d already met. Judging by the evening’s agenda, it’s plausible to think that Gordon had decided to offer Fred the job days earlier. Knowing that Fred was a Scotsman, they plied him with Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch. Fred remembers little else about the evening except getting lost in the house between his bedroom and the toilet.

Fred had the good sense to speak to Karen before accepting the offer. After agreeing to embark on the new adventure together, they rented a U-Haul, and headed south toward Little Rock, Ark. Even though Fred followed the legendary Whiz kid, he brought his own unique style and quickly established his own identity within the Stihl culture.

I recall one of Fred’s first sales meetings at Crader — the sales team had gathered at a remote cabin on the banks of a spring-fed southern Missouri river. Fred arose early the first morning and quietly crept away before anyone noticed he was gone. Just when the sun began to cast a few faint shadows, everyone had begun to gather on the cabin’s screened-in porch. Fred emerged from the fog in his pipe-playing attire, marching to the tune of “Scotland The Brave.” The first response was to take a shot at the mysterious person in the questionable garb, followed by curiosity as to the undergarments one wears while playing the pipes. Fred plowed his own furrow.

Too often, the sins of the father are visited upon the son. Fred and Karen’s union produced a son and a daughter, John and Jean. Like Fred, John was eager to learn how to play the pipes. And like Fred, he excelled. Fred and John eventually competed in Scotland’s annual world championship pipe band competition, where they placed third out of 52 bands.

Stihl continued to enjoy rapid growth and record-setting sales years. Fred’s field position was eventually split into multiple regions taken over by others when he moved to Virginia Beach, Va., as a product manager for guide bars and saw chain. It was during that time that most Stihl distributors began selling Stihl chain exclusively and abandoned brands such as Carlton and Oregon. Appropriately impressed with Fred’s leadership abilities, the Stihl family asked Fred to first establish and then lead a Canadian operation, where he’d be responsible for distribution of Stihl throughout all of Canada. Fred’s performance in Canada resulted in him being asked to return to Virginia Beach as president of Stihl Inc., overseeing marketing, sales and the rapid expansion of Stihl’s North America manufacturing operations.

After serving Stihl for more than 45 years and leading the company from a moderately known brand to America’s biggest-selling outdoor handheld power tool, Fred retired as Stihl Incorporated’s longest-serving president. The Stihl family, not wishing to lose Fred’s knowledge and influence, appointed him sole director and chairman of the board at Stihl Inc., a board of one, created solely to keep Fred in the game.

During the research for this book, I had the privilege of spending an afternoon with Fred and Karen at their home in Virginia Beach. He and I discussed the book and reminisced about all things Stihl, the Stihl family, Stihl’s unique marketing strategy, what Stihl had meant to his family, and so many others, as well as Fred’s recent diagnosis with cancer. Just before Karen graciously drove me back to my hotel, I shook Fred’s hand, patted him on the shoulder, and confirmed that I’d pray for him. We both knew it was likely our last earthly visit. Fred passed away soon thereafter on July 7, 2017. His passing left in me a wounded heart that won’t soon be healed, if ever.

Stan Crader is the president of Stihl distributors Crader Distributing Company (CDC) in Marble Hill, Mo., and Blue Mountain Equipment (BME) in McKinney, Texas, as well as an author and lecturer. The Crader family has been selling Stihl since 1959 and serving as a Stihl distributor since 1960. Stan officially joined the company in 1971, and he has served as president of both CDC and BME for more than 25 years. He recalls their first shipment of Stihls, a pallet of 40 D24s arriving by train and his father hitting the road in search of dealers interested in selling Stihl. He attended his first Stihl distributor meeting in 1966, a 40th anniversary of Stihl’s auspicious founding in Germany. During a more recent Stihl 40th anniversary in 2014, celebrating the 1974 opening of Stihl’s manufacturing plant in Virginia Beach, Va., Stan was inspired to write a book titled Stihl American, profiling many of the people who pioneered Stihl’s reintroduction to America. Stihl American will be available later this year. Stan has also authored three other Colby Series books — The Bridge, Paperboy, and The Longest Year — with all proceeds from the books benefiting the Resurrecting Lives Foundation, which supports the research and treatment of traumatic brain injuries for U.S. Veterans. For more information, visit www.stancrader.com.

FLASHBACK:
Green Media announces Fred J. Whyte among 2010 Most Influential People

Green Media — publisher of Outdoor Power Equipment, Landscape and Irrigation, SportsTurf and Arbor Age — announced the 2010 selections for “Most Influential People in the Green Industry” in the January 2011 issues of those four magazines.

Green Media’s “Most Influential People in the Green Industry” were nominated by their peers for their ongoing contributions to the Green Industry. Nominations were reviewed by Green Media’s in-house panel, and the 2010 selections for “Most Influential People” were chosen from throughout the Green Industry.

Twenty professionals, including Fred J. Whyte, received the 2010 honor for exemplifying their commitment to the Green Industry and exhibiting a widespread influence on their peers. Following is the subsequent profile story about Fred and his selection that was published in January 2011 OPE and worth revisiting, especially his responses to the Q&A.

Fred J. Whyte
Fred J. Whyte

Fred J. Whyte is the president of STIHL Incorporated and chairman of the board of directors for the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI). He is responsible for the overall management of STIHL’s U.S. operation, headquartered in Virginia Beach, Va. Prior to his appointment as president of STIHL Inc. in 1992, Whyte was the president of STIHL Limited, the company’s Canadian affiliate.

Whyte began his career with STIHL in 1971, working as a regional manager for STIHL American, the same company where his father had worked for nearly two decades. He became product manager for STIHL Inc. in 1975 and was promoted to national sales manager just four years later.

At age 34, Whyte became president of STIHL Limited, where he founded the Canadian operation in 1982 and served in that role until he became president of STIHL Inc. During his 10 years at STIHL Ltd., the Canadian company achieved increases in sales each year. The tradition of achievement continued under Whyte’s presidential tenure at STIHL Inc., which experienced 17 consecutive years of annual increases in sales and revenue prior to the recent recession. Also, under Whyte’s leadership, STIHL achieved the status as the number one selling brand of gasoline-powered handheld outdoor power equipment in America.

A native of Vancouver, B.C., Canada, Whyte is a Magna Cum Laude graduate of Seattle University and holds a master’s degree from the University of Iowa. He also served as president of the Portable Power Equipment Manufacturers Association (PPEMA).

OPE: You were nominated by your peers as one of the “Most Influential People in the Green Industry.” How do you feel that you influence other industry professionals?

FJW: First of all, I am humbled by this honor since there are so many talented individuals who come to work every day motivated to make STIHL successful. As far as influencing others, I firmly believe that you lead by example and, through your actions, establish yourself as someone who is trustworthy and worth learning from. I believe that STIHL has taken its place as a leader in the industry primarily through our team’s efforts to continually improve our products, processes and programs. It has been a wonderful experience for me to watch the entire industry push itself over the years to become more efficient, produce better products, and reduce our impact on the environment.

OPE: What do you feel has been your biggest contribution to the Green Industry so far? And what do you see as your role in the future of the industry?

FJW: I have always believed that as leaders we need to be part of the solution, not the problem. Part of that is to empower personnel to move beyond just doing their basic jobs and create an environment that encourages them to be active in the various organizations and associations in the Green Industry and in our community.

STIHL has focused, in particular, on the future of the Green Industry, and our people are very active in youth- and education-oriented programs like Professional Landcare Network (PLANET) Student Career Days, Tree Care Industry Association Foundation (TCIAF) Student Career Days/Competition, National Association of State Park Directors Leadership School, and the National FFA. By supporting these programs, we believe that we are helping to strengthen the future of the Green Industry.

As far as my role in the future, I think I have a few more years of active service to STIHL and to the industry, as well as to the local community. However, with two-cycle oil in my veins, I don’t see “retirement” leading to separation from the OPE industry. I certainly hope that I can use my knowledge and experience as an advisor or consultant to the industry.

OPE: Who has influenced you both personally and professionally?

FJW: My father worked for STIHL, and it was through him that I became involved with the company nearly 40 years ago. One of his favorite quotes has always stuck with me, “Quality is like buying oats. If you want good, clean oats, you must pay a fair price. If you want oats that have already been through the horse, they are always cheaper.” If you want a good, quality product, it isn’t necessarily always the cheapest, but it is always worth the investment. At STIHL, employees, branches, distributors and independent dealers, alike, work to ensure that customers get a good value for their investment in STIHL.

Also, the Stihl family has been a tremendous influence on me. I have a lot of admiration for the entire family. They are not guided by a “short-term, least-expensive” mentality — they focus on what’s the right solution for long-term objectives, regardless of whether that is a more expensive option in the short term. They never just accept the “easiest” path. Having such leadership and a value-focused culture has made my job much easier when facing decisions: Do it right, and do it right the first time.

In particular, Hans Peter Stihl, who remains as chairman of the advisory board today, is the epitome of integrity, focus and vision; he has led the worldwide STIHL organization in realizing its potential and becoming what it is today, and has my deepest respect.

Fred Whyte enjoys spending time with his two Golden Retrievers, Fergie (left) and Hogan (right).

OPE: Tell us something about yourself outside of work (hobby, sport or other personal interest) that influences your approach in your professional career.

FJW: In addition to being an avid Iowa Hawkeyes fan, I play the bagpipes. The tradition in that instrument runs deep. My father played bagpipes at my wedding; and just last year, I played at the wedding of my son, who also plays. At the same time, I am definitely a fan of emerging technologies. I was thrilled when my wife bought me a Kindle for Christmas last year. I can stay up to date on my professional reading and current editions of all my usual newspapers, regardless of where I’m traveling. I would say that the mixture of tradition and innovation keeps life grounded and interesting, and serves me well in my present role at STIHL.

I am also an outdoor enthusiast from golfing to bird hunting to an energetic game of fetch with my two Golden Retrievers, Fergie and Hogan. I enjoy the outdoors. It is perhaps this love of the outdoors that, in part, drives my desire to ensure STIHL Inc. exercises responsible environmental practices. All of us have a duty to protect the environment. I’m happy to be part of the generation that has made so much progress in improving our role as stewards of the environment and setting the example for future generations to follow.

OPE: What dreams do you have for the industry? What change(s) are necessary to make those dreams a reality?

FJW: The Green Industry plays a vital role in the environment and the quality of life of people everywhere. We are responsible for taking care of our green spaces and forest lands. The industry is a very relevant part of society, and I would like to see it receive the recognition it deserves. In order to do so, however, all the different entities involved in the Green Industry will need to speak with one voice and become our own advocates.

OPE: What advice do you have for Green Industry professionals who want to become influential leaders themselves?

FJW: In his book Making the Grass Greener on Your Side: A CEO’s Journey to Leading by Serving, Ken Melrose, former CEO of The Toro Company, writes about the idea of servant leadership. My advice to those seeking to gain authority and influence is to embrace this philosophy. Every employee possesses the potential to make a contribution. We as leaders must create an environment and workplace culture that inspires employees to reach their potential. They must feel valued, engaged, empowered, and recognized. We earn the right to be heard through our example.

About snoe