Dorsey Glover, the 81-year-old founder of STIHL SOUTHWEST, is well known in STIHL circles as a colorful character and a great teller-of-tales. Over the years, he has told stories about the early days of the business to a number of people and groups, usually in venues where adult beverages were available in appropriate quantity. It won’t be quite the same, but for greatest appreciation, get your dog settled in your lap, put your feet up and imagine the “good old days.”

I was an attorney in practice with my father in Malvern, Arkansas, and was representing Robert Ward (now deceased) in various business matters. Robert was a pulpwood producer and a wood dealer for International Paper, and we soon became good friends. Pulpwood was and is a big business in this part of the country, and in addition to Robert, I represented a number of lumber companies, sawmills and pulpwood producers and became familiar with the timber business.

STIHL chainsaws first appeared in Arkansas in the early 1960s when Gordon Williams, president of STIHL American, the importer for STIHL in the U.S., provided several direct drive saws to International Paper Company for testing and evaluation. Robert had a friend who was the supervisor of the crew that was running the STIHL saws, and he told Robert that they were far superior to any other chainsaws that IP had run, such as the Homelite and McCulloch models that dominated the market at that time. Robert had a small chainsaw shop that was primarily operated for the convenience of his own logging crews. International Paper told him that if he would get the distributorship for STIHL, they would buy the saws from him. Robert got the distributorship for the southern half of Arkansas and provided STIHL saws to IP and to his own crews, but he never set up any dealers and only sold at retail through his own shop.

During this time, I kept hearing from folks in the industry that STIHL saws were far superior to the other products of the day, in terms of both performance and longevity. Robert and I discussed the possibility of going into business together for the purpose of distributing STIHL saws, and he and I became joint owners of Ward Chain Saw Supply, Inc., which I incorporated on April 1, 1966, after STIHL American agreed to expand Robert’s existing territory to include the entire state of Arkansas.

Ward Chain Saw Supply operated out of the same 1,500 square foot building that Robert had been using as a saw shop and gas station.  One half of this space was occupied by the saw shop and the other half had our one office and our “warehouse.” While it may seem that this warehouse would have been far too small, the truth is that it was more than sufficient because no more inventory than we carried, we could have taken it home with us each evening.

The only products we had back then were chainsaws, and as I recall, we only had five models. We had three direct drive models:  the 06, 08 and 09. In addition, the 06 and the 09 also had gear-driven versions. These saws would both outperform and outlast the Homelite, McCulloch and Poulan chain saws that we were competing with in the marketplace. They were also competitively priced, so you would think that it would have been easy to set up dealers, but that was not the case. There were very few foreign products in the U.S. market at the time, and certainly not in the chainsaw market. At that time “Made in Japan” was synonymous with “junk,” but fortunately, German products did have a well-deserved reputation for superior quality and engineering. Volkswagens had been around for a few years along with a few diesel Mercedes, and photography aficionados would have been familiar with Leica cameras. 

The close tolerances and precision engineering of our STIHL saws, when compared to our competition, were impossible to ignore. Our first salesman was Neal Calley, who I hired away from the Poulan distributor. When Neal called on a new dealer prospect, he walked in carrying a very nice looking blue velour bag with a gold crest and drawstring. The dealer might be forgiven for thinking that the bag still contained the bottle of Crown Royal Canadian whisky it once held and that it was going to be a nice “door opener” and get-acquainted gift for him. The bag actually contained a cylinder and piston for a STIHL 08. The tolerances on STIHL were so much closer than the competition that it was almost like measuring with a yardstick rather than a micrometer. Neal could also show the chrome impregnated cylinder wall that provided more power and much longer life than the steel inserts used by the competition. The quality and features of the STIHL saw were quite impressive to the mechanics who were spending their time turning wrenches on other brands.  

The Crown Royal bags never failed to get attention when Neal walked in a shop, and Robert and I were happy to keep him supplied with new ones when he wore one out.

In the 1960's, there were very few chainsaw shops, as such, in our territory. There were a few lawnmower shops, outboard motor shops and gas stations that carried a few saws, but you were just as likely to find a saw shop located in what used to be the garage at the man’s house. There were a lot of wonderful people and great characters, but most had little or no business experience, much less retailing experience. At the same time, most of them were excellent “shade tree” mechanics and could split a crankcase in the blink of an eye.

A lot of dealers in the early days had worked in the logging woods and had learned to maintain their own equipment out of necessity. Our biggest dealer for a number of years had a little shop with a dirt floor, and when he really wanted to spruce the place up, he’d throw down a few handfuls of sawdust. He walked around with a wad of cash in one pocket and a loaded pistol in the other and was the charter member of our “Club 200” award for being the first of our dealers to sell 200 units in a year.

We actually lost a couple of dealers in those days to a rather unusual complaint, which was that STIHL saws were too good, lasted too long and didn’t generate enough parts and repair business. Most of these businesses started as repair shops and that’s what they were geared up to do. They didn’t make much money when they sold a new saw and were just happy to have the saw back in the shop frequently for service and repair. They were accustomed to replacing the pistons and cylinders on competitive saws every two or three months. When they sold a STIHL saw, it usually only came back for chain or an occasional spark plug, and that was a real problem for the folks who only saw their business as the business of selling parts and repairing saws. I never did figure out how to deal with that type of mindset.

In those early days, most prospective dealers who were considering carrying STIHL were extremely concerned about parts availability. If they couldn’t get parts for their Poulan saws from the factory in Shreveport, just a few hours away, how could they possibly expect to get parts for STIHL saws all the way from Waiblingen, Germany?

If the Crown Royal bag was our first “sales program,” this may have been our first guarantee to our dealers. My standing promise was that they would receive at least one of every part that they ordered on their initial order. If they didn’t, I would take them with me to Germany and we would pick it up off the assembly line. I never had to take a dealer to Germany, but I sure had to tear down a few saws in the warehouse to get the parts they ordered!

Back then, the saws came to us equipped with Oregon chain, and we also acted as a distributor for Oregon in the early days. As a distributor, we paid $1.50/foot for the same chain that STIHL American was buying for $.50/foot, as an original equipment manufacturer. We were also having our own engine oil and bar lube made to our specifications and were essentially selling the chain and lubricants at cost as a “door opener” to help us develop a business relationship with a dealer that we wanted to sell STIHL products for us. Once in a while, Gordon Williams at STIHL American would let us buy some of that OEM chain for 50 cents a foot, and you can believe that that made us fierce competitors in the marketplace while it lasted.

Today, lots of people don’t even know what a bow bar is, but that is what they used instead of a regular bar on a high percentage of the saws that were used to cut pulpwood, especially on the gear-drive saws. They ran .404 or ½” pitch chain on those bows and the chain speed was so slow that you could almost count the teeth as they turned. The chain spent half its time in the dirt and would get so dull it would hardly cut melted butter. The operators probably sharpened the chain once every week or so, whether it needed it or not. 

Our biggest dealer in east Texas at the time handled McCulloch, Poulan and Homelite, as well as STIHL saws. We had gotten him to put out a few of our direct drive saws equipped with bow bars, but he started complaining about chain breakage on the STIHL saws. We assured him that there was nothing about the design of a STIHL saw that would cause Oregon chain to break, but he told us he was running competitive saws side-by-side with the STIHL saws and the STIHL saws were the only ones that were breaking the chains. My partner, Robert, and I drove down there to see what the problem was. As you may have guessed, the trouble was caused by operators running very dull chain. The chain speed on the direct-drive STIHL saws was probably four or five times faster than it was on the competitive gear drive saws, so when the operator would bear down on one of our saws, like he had to with the competitors, it would break the chain. It took a good bit of training to break the bad habits that chainsaw operators had developed on competitive saws.

By 1971, we had far outgrown the 1,500 square foot building we were in, and the business was requiring more and more of my time away from the law office. It was obvious that we were going to have to buy another piece of property, build a new building, and hire more people for the company to reach its potential. Robert already had his boat loaded with his successful wood business and didn’t want to take on additional debt, so I bought him out in 1971, changed the name of the corporation to STIHL SOUTHWEST, INC., and built a new, 3,000 square foot building. Since that was twice as big as our original building, I was pretty sure it would last us forever. I was wrong about that.

In 1974, we built and moved into a 6,900 square foot building with a loading dock and a reasonable amount of space for trucks to maneuver. In 1980, we built another building with 15,000 square feet and expanded it twice to a total of 27,000 square feet. In 2003, we built our current facility with 50,000 square feet and designed it to be easily expandable to more than 100,000 square feet. Moving a distributorship is a huge amount of work and with four buildings already behind us, we wanted to make sure that we could expand in place without actually moving any time soon.

After I bought Robert out in 1971, I tried to continue practicing law for another year or so, but there just weren’t enough hours in the day to do justice to both jobs. I decided to cast my lot with STIHL SOUTHWEST. My father was about ready to retire, so we wound up closing down a third generation law practice. My uncle and his son practiced law in the building next door to us so we knew our clients would be well taken care of. That was a decision that I do not regret, and indeed, I consider myself fortunate to have been associated with such high quality people and products for these past 50 years.

Our competitors back then were Homelite, McCulloch and Poulan. STIHL was the new kid on the block, and they definitely weren’t throwing any “welcome to the neighborhood” parties for us. Of the three, Homelite was probably our strongest competitor as they usually had the best dealer in town and were able to offer pumps and generators and other equipment, in addition to chainsaws. They made a gear-drive model they called the Whiz 66, which was very popular with the pulpwood cutters using a bow bar.

McCulloch was as strong as bear’s breath back then, as well. They offered a more extensive line of equipment at that time than STIHL did. And you could always tell when someone fired up a McCulloch because it sounded like a cross between an old John Deere tractor and a Harley Davidson with straight pipes. If a prize had been given for the best way to convert fuel into noise, they would have won it, hands down. Their saws were also notoriously hard to start. If you remember the old McCulloch logo, it looked like a “C” superimposed over an “MC.” As politely as I can put it, we always said that that stood for “Crank Mother, Crank.” Or something like that.

I took my first flying lesson on my 16th birthday and got my license shortly thereafter. I flew for more than 50 years and owned a number of airplanes during that time. One of our most popular chainsaws in the 1970s was the 041AV, which was an excellent saw for pulpwood and featured the world’s first anti-vibration system. At that time, I had a twin-engine Aero Commander with the registration number N41AV. In those days, an order for a dozen or more saws was a big deal and dealers making that kind of commitment frequently had the saws personally delivered to their local airport. (I was looking for any excuse to fly!) Many of our dealers and their families made their first flight aboard that aircraft after helping me unload their saw order.

As much as I enjoyed flying, it indirectly caused me to make a bad business decision in the 1960s. I flew back and forth to Dallas in connection with my law practice on a fairly regular basis, and I had noticed that the heavy timber belt starting thinning out pretty quickly after I crossed the Texas state line. After I got about two counties deep into Texas, the trees thinned out and once I got near Dallas, well, let’s just say that the local dogs were having to make do with a scrub oak or a mesquite bush. About that time, Gordon Williams of Stihl American offered me whatever part of Texas I wanted, as long as I was prepared to cover it with sales representatives. Since I knew where the timberline ended, I told him that I wanted the area two counties deep into Texas – 14 counties along the border with Arkansas and Louisiana.

Oh, how I wish I had had a business degree instead of a law degree. If that had been the case, I might have realized that PEOPLE bought chainsaws, not trees, and I would have been far more interested in the parts of Texas with lots of people. That would have been even more true had I known what the future held in terms of product diversification.