Upfront: OPE industry loses a legend: Fred J. Whyte

By Steve Noe

After recovering from the initial shock and sadness over learning about the passing of Fred J. Whyte on July 7 and reflecting on my 20 years working as editor of OPE, I could not think of a single person who has had a more profound impact on the OPE industry during my tenure than him (see stories on pages 10 and 36-39).

Fred not only worked a remarkable 45 years in the Stihl organization, including 23 highly successful years as the president of Stihl Inc. from 1992 through 2015, but his influence extended far beyond Stihl. Fred played prominent leadership roles with the Portable Power Equipment Manufacturers Association (PPEMA) and the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI), and he was instrumental in uniting PPEMA with OPEI. And even when he finally announced his retirement at the end of 2015, Stihl still felt the need to retain his services as the sole director and chairman of a one-person board.

Despite all of Fred’s success, I also can’t recall another person in the OPE industry who was more humble and personable than him. When talking to Fred, he had the unique ability to make you feel as if you were the most important person in the room. I’ll never forget an encounter with him at OPEI’s 52nd annual meeting in Hershey, Pa., in 2004. After I formally introduced him to my boss, then-publisher Steve Brackett, Fred paid me the ultimate compliment by saying, “Whatever you’re paying this guy, you should double it!”

Fred left lasting impressions on nearly everyone who crossed his path, as evidenced by how many people felt compelled to share their thoughts about him following his passing.

OPEI issued the following statement:

The industry has lost a true leader and great friend. Fred J. Whyte was one of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute’s longest-serving board members, including acting as chair.

Fred J. Whyte and Lucky, the “TurfMutt,” in the Stihl offices

“Fred was a leader in the truest sense of the word, a friend and mentor to me,” said Kris Kiser, president & CEO of OPEI. “I routinely sought Fred’s guidance and direction. He sought solutions and fundamentally understood compromise in the furtherance of consensus. This is a genuine skill and key in operating a successful trade association of competitors. We will miss him.

“He was tough, smart, intuitive and just plain fun to be around. He had a terrific sense of humor and infectious laugh. He was a solid, decent, caring man.”

Kiser added, “Lucky the TurfMutt and I visited Fred in his Virginia Beach offices at Stihl. We shared a passion and love for our dogs. We would share dog stories and our pictures.”

In Fred’s honor, OPEI will make a donation to the Virginia Beach SPCA, an organization close to his heart.

Rest in peace, our friend.

OPEI Chairman Dan Ariens, who is the chairman and CEO at Ariens Company, said, “Fred Whyte was a wonderful man. He easily made friends in the industry. His strong leadership pulled two trade associations — PPEMA and OPEI — together at a critical time. Merging the handheld industry together with OPEI was historic, and set OPEI as the pre-eminent authority on power equipment in North America. The Stihl corporation was blessed with the leadership Fred brought to the brand — the results are obvious. At Ariens Company, we wish his wife Karen and the Whyte family our sincerest condolences to a man who passed away far too early. We will all miss Fred.”

And those sentiments were even echoed by his competitors. “I was deeply saddened to hear of Fred Whyte’s passing,” said Dave Zerfoss, who served as president of Husqvarna’s professional products division in North America from 1991 to 2009. “Fred and I served together on the PPEMA and OPEI boards. Although competitors, we worked together to improve the industry for all. We have lost an industry leader and colleague, but Fred’s many contributions will live on for years to come.”

“I once ran and managed a distributor of lawn and garden equipment and parts; I never sold, distributed, or used a product made by Stihl,” said Jim Starmer, former president (now retired) of Dixie Sales Company. “But Fred Whyte was my friend.

“He would spot me at an industry trade show or an industry meeting, and, smiling, call my name from across a room. I would think ‘that’s Fred Whyte’ and ‘he knows my name!’ I was always honored, and yes, astounded, by that regular occurrence. Back in the ‘early days,’ and that can be any date you choose, I would support by my presence, numerous industry organizations. I might have been on the board of directors of a fledgling dealer organization, or I may have just sat there, intruding quietly but listening carefully. I may have been attending an EETC meeting, or an OPEESA meeting, or The Service Dealers Association meeting, or even a NESDA meeting or Texas Service Dealers meeting, listening, supporting, where and when I could.

“More times than not, there would be another man sitting there quietly near me, listening carefully to all that went on. I soon came to learn that that man was Fred Whyte. Even then, he was the face and the heart and soul of Stihl. And that supporting our industry and its service and sales dealers, even when he wasn’t a member of that organization, was his sometimes secret but usually very public, strongest passion.

“There were very few people in my 45 years in the OPE industry that I respected more. Fred Whyte was my friend. I bet he was your friend too.”

Stan Crader, president of Stihl distributors Crader Distributing Company in Marble Hill, Mo., and Blue Mountain Equipment in McKinney, Texas, was one of Fred’s long-time friends and recently interviewed him in person for his soon-to-be released book, Stihl American. “One need only look at the meteoric rise in the popularity of the Stihl brand during Fred’s tenure as president of Stihl Inc. to validate his leadership skills,” Stan said. “Fred had an extraordinary knack for surrounding himself with talented people and the gift of inspiring everyone to their fullest potential. Rarely was there a serious moment when a clever one-liner wasn’t lurking nearby. His laugh was contagious, and his interest in the success of others sincere. He was a mentor to many and a friend to me. His quick and untimely passing has left a gaping hole in my heart. Some pass, and we keep them in our memory; the very special we keep in our heart.”

On behalf of everyone at OPE, I would like to extend our sincerest condolences to Fred’s family and friends. He was one of a kind and will be dearly missed.

Steve Noe
OPE Senior Editor Steve Noe