I got a chance to speak with Chris Keffer, President and CEO of Stihl Inc. Two chances, actually. This interview started during the craziness of Equip Expo following a Stihl Inc. press conference. A good starting point but not an ideal interview time. So I asked for more time with Mr. Keffer, and he was available. Here is the result of that combination.
OPE Business: Following Equip Expo, what did you and your team hear from dealers and landscaping pros that helps your direction for 2024?
Chris Keffer: The general theme through the show and after is that dealers and equipment users want to hear how we can make batteries easier to understand. How can we make it easier for dealers to sell battery-powered equipment? How can we provide information that makes it easier to buy and use battery-powered equipment? At the show, we had a couple panel discussions, with experts who’ve made the switch, to talk about how they use this equipment, and how it helps their business. The educational aspect of this evolution is important.
OPEB: As you mentioned at Equip Expo, homeowners have already adopted battery powered products. But the adoption for commercial users as well as for dealers is more involved. The shift from gas to battery as “fuel” has some professionals anxious, or at least hesitant. How do you address that?
Keffer: For traditional OPE dealers, service is a big portion of their business. And we spend a lot of time helping dealers service gas products. Dealers will still have opportunities to service battery-powered products, but is there as much opportunity? Perhaps not. And that could seem like a threat to a dealer’s profitability.
For professional users, gas is a known entity. They know what it costs and how long it takes to refuel equipment. On battery-powered products, that process takes a lot longer and is less well known. People are afraid of running out of juice, and that can impact a pro’s efficiency, productivity and profitability. People have a lot of questions around energy management. We need to be almost a consultant and provide information if they want to make the switch or if legislation forces a switch.
For more on the transition to batteries, see our “Power Shift” feature article.
OPEB: At Equip Expo, you said you see opportunities with both batteries and gas, and that gas-powered equipment will be here for a long time. How does that merge with Stihl’s goals for sustainability?
Keffer: It’s no secret that there is a potential link of engine emissions and global warming. We’re looking at the manufacturing of battery cells too. And with gas, we’re looking at how we can be more efficient, more sustainable, and more responsible.
OPEB: Regarding ecommerce, at Equip Expo you told me that “dealers are a little uncomfortable with ecommerce.” I’ve spoken with many dealers who view online shopping as an obstacle to their ability to build relationships with customers. What are you doing to enable dealers to use the tools you provide, and to make them comfortable doing so?
Keffer: We’re early in the game, and I’m optimistic. Stihl dealers are definitely adopting ecommerce. Hundreds of dealers currently use our ecommerce tools [note: Stihl has more than 10,000 dealer locations in the U.S.], and we’re seeing good uptick. Dealers can opt in quickly to a hosted ecommerce site. We provide a platform. We provide the content and the marketing material. They have to execute it.
We began allowing ship-to-home for the first time this year, and most buyers want that ship-to-home service. The ship-to-home option provides more people with more hours of shopping time. Dealers need to handle the shipping themselves. But we’re looking at options for drop shipping too. We’re pleased with where we are right now. We do provide a pickup-in-store option too.
We believe in the customer relationships, too. Some dealers are apprehensive to change. And younger buyers, digital natives, are increasingly our customers. Look at the demographics in general. We love dealers, and we want dealers to put their products in front of people 24 / 7.
We have a requirement that our dealers are servicing dealers. And we have training programs for techs. The overall purchase process Stihl dealers provide is second to none.
OPEB: What is your outlook on the economy for 2024?
Keffer: We’re optimistic, cautiously. We talk to dealers a lot about inventory. We’re planning a year where we grow, with very solid growth on the battery side. Our gas business is relatively flat. We’re planning a conservative growth year in 2024.
It’s no secret that interest rates have gone up. We try to find an aggressive and happy place to help dealers with equipment financing. We’re not only doing that for the ZTR business, but dealers can lump in handheld products as well.
OPEB: What new products or ideas are you working on for 2024?
Keffer: Our battery-powered zero-turn mower is going to be a game changer, with up to 21 acres of run time. They’ll be shipping in January. This is a huge development for our business.
We will be celebrating our 50th anniversary in the US is next year. We’re proud resident of Virginia Beach, Va., and we will celebrate that in a big way.
OPEB: You’re a new addition to the OPEI Board of Directors. What is your personal mission on that board?
Keffer: I’ve been heavily involved with battery innovation for a long time. Part of my mission every day is to create innovation that will add value for Stihl and create opportunities for the industry. How can we take our technology and solve user problems, and make our industry safer, more green and easier to use.