Key Takeaways

  • Success in leadership comes from a deep focus on understanding and meeting the needs of both customers and employees. A culture that values mutual respect, open communication, and collaboration is essential for fostering a positive work environment and driving growth.
  • Regular and transparent communication within an organization is crucial for aligning team members with the company’s vision and objectives. This includes clearly stating strategic goals and ensuring everyone is informed and engaged.
  • A successful company doesn’t operate in isolation; it engages with its local communities and builds strong, supportive relationships. This approach extends to partnerships with educational institutions to foster innovation and talent development.
  • A commitment to innovation and a growth mindset, where feedback is valued and used for continuous improvement, is fundamental. Encouraging experiential learning and maintaining a positive environment are key to supporting this mindset.
  • Staying close to customers and understanding their needs is critical for adapting to market changes. An organizational structure facilitating direct interaction with customers and dealers can significantly enhance adaptability and customer satisfaction.
  • Maintaining core values and a long-term strategic vision reminiscent of a family-owned business supports a company’s commitment to quality and service. It fosters trust and a sense of belonging among stakeholders.
  • The cornerstone of a successful business ecosystem is delivering high-quality products backed by exceptional service. Focusing on reliability, durability, and performance meets stakeholder needs and reinforces the company’s market reputation.
  • A culture that prioritizes continuous improvement, customer focus, and entrepreneurial spirit is essential for providing exceptional customer service. A meticulous approach to the buying experience differentiates a company in the marketplace.


In this episode of The Leader Show, Lou Carter interviews Chris Keffer, President and CEO of STIHL. Chris talks about his “platinum rule” of treating people as they wish to be treated, the significance of communication, objective alignment, and the value of relationships with stakeholders. He highlights the presence of quality leadership, continuous improvement, and the influence of family values and entrepreneurial spirit on STIHL’s success. 

Additionally, Chris stresses the importance of customer experience and dealer roles, concluding with appreciation for his team’s role in the company’s achievements.

Executive Summary

Greetings, everyone, and a heartfelt welcome to yet another insightful episode of The Leader Show with Lou Carter. We are joined by Chris Keffer, the President and CEO of STIHL. STIHL is a leading manufacturer of power tools for various sectors, including forestry, agriculture, and construction. 

STIHL is ranked 85 America’s Top 100 Most Loved Workplaces in 2023, operating as a vital part of the global network from Virginia Beach and supplying products to over 100 markets worldwide. 

Chris, with his extensive background from Stanley Black and Decker, is noted for his strategic, customer-focused leadership that is guiding STIHL towards innovative solutions and an enhanced omnichannel approach to customer service. 

In this episode, we’ll explore Chris’ vision, expertise, and commitment to maintaining a certified Most Loved Workplace. We’ll also take a look at the company’s culture, Chris’ personal beliefs, and his contributions to STIHL. 

So, without any further ado, let’s jump in!

Chris’ Leadership Mantra And STIHL’s Collaborative Growth Strategies

Firstly, Lou and Chris discuss the principles and practices that have contributed to STIHL’s success under Chris’ leadership. Chris highlights the importance of his “platinum rule” at STIHL, which is centered around treating people how they want to be treated, emphasizing a customer-centric and employee-focused approach. 

Additionally, Chris elaborates on the STIHL’s robust communication strategies, including monthly leadership stand-ups and quarterly all-employee meetings, which are pivotal for aligning everyone with the company’s mission. These practices are crucial for ensuring that all employees are well-informed and aligned with STIHL’s goals, thereby fostering collaboration and driving growth.

Chris’ Commitment To Accessibility, Engagement, And Community At STIHL

Next, Chris elaborates on the significance of his open-door policy and the broader ethos of presence, accessibility, and engagement at STIHL. He emphasizes the necessity for leaders to be physically present not only in the office but also on the ground and interacting with employees and stakeholders. It ensures that the strategic goals and narratives are not only communicated but are also understood and acted upon through direct interaction.

Additionally, Chris highlights the importance of being accessible to everyone, from employees to dealers, and stresses the value of community and collaboration. He draws a parallel with Bernie Marcus’s vision for Home Depot, focusing on the symbiotic relationship between the company, its suppliers, and the community. 

This holistic approach extends to active participation across all locations where STIHL operates, including engagement with local governments, charitable organizations, and educational initiatives.

A specific example Chris mentions to illustrate this approach is STIHL’s involvement with local high schools in STEM programs, where students are invited to participate in product development processes through summer camps. This initiative promotes community, collaboration, and innovation, highlighting STIHL’s dedication to enhancing education and advancing manufacturing and technology in the United States.

STIHL’s Innovation Ecosystem And The Power Of A Growth Mindset

Moving on, the speakers explore STIHL’s commitment to supporting American jobs and fostering a community of learning and innovation. 

Chris mentions the significance of experiential learning for STIHL employees and high school students, highlighting how internships enhance recruitment and support talent acquisition strategies.

The discussion also touches on the importance of maintaining a positive and enthusiastic environment for both employees and dealers, recognizing the value of sentiment and emotion in the workplace. Chris points out that user-centric innovation is pivotal, and dealer feedback plays a crucial role in enabling STIHL to adapt and improve quickly, thereby maintaining a competitive edge.

Furthermore, he delves into the concept of a growth mindset, crediting Carol Dweck for the ideology. It is highlighted through the practice of soliciting feedback from employees and dealers, focusing on continuous improvement rather than assigning blame. 

Chris also underscores the importance of communication, especially during tumultuous times, to ensure everyone is aligned with the company’s strategic goals and objectives. According to Chris, it is facilitated by leveraging insights gained from surveys to address areas for improvement, embodying STIHL’s commitment to a culture of ongoing development and excellence.

Chris’ Approach To Direct Customer Engagement And Sustaining STIHL’s Market Adaptability

After that, Lou expresses curiosity about Chris’ philosophy on staying connected with customers.

Chris responds by highlighting that direct interaction with customers is imperative as it helps understand their needs and adapt to market changes, which cannot be achieved solely from within an office. 

He mentions that STIHL’s approach to staying close to customers is a core competency developed over decades, facilitated by an organizational structure that supports easy access to users and dealers. This strong foundation of relationships and an emphasis on listening are key to STIHL’s strategy for maintaining customer satisfaction and driving business success.

The Enduring Family Values And Entrepreneurial Spirit Of STIHL

Chris and Lou discuss how STIHL, despite its size and global presence, retains the core values and operational approach of a family business. 

The former points out that the company is privately owned, not influenced by private equity, and maintains close connections with the founding family. These relationships and the family-like culture within the company are crucial to its long-term strategic vision and commitment to quality and service.

Lou draws parallels between his family’s insurance agency, established in 1928, and STIHL’s approach to building trusted, personal relationships within the community. This comparison underscores the timeless value of trust, respect, and a sense of belonging in business operations.

Furthermore, Chris highlights STIHL’s nearing 50th anniversary in the U.S. and its century-long legacy of innovation and founder Andreas Stihl’s entrepreneurial spirit. He highlights the company’s focus on understanding and solving customer problems and a steadfast commitment to family values and dealer support. 

This blend of innovation, tradition, and customer-centricity is identified as STIHL’s competitive advantage, embodying the company’s entrepreneurial spirit that is celebrated and rewarded.

How STIHL’s Ecosystem Thrives On Quality Products And Unparalleled Service

Moving on, Chris discusses the diverse ecosystem of stakeholders that STIHL engages with, emphasizing the importance of delivering quality products and unmatched service. He highlights the company’s interactions with employees, their families, dealers, and users who rely on STIHL’s products for their livelihoods.

Chris points out that STIHL products’ durability, reliability, and performance are critical to fulfilling these stakeholders’ needs. Moreover, he emphasizes the paramount importance of service, primarily delivered through STIHL’s network of servicing dealers, which forms the foundation of the company’s commitment to its stakeholders. 

By focusing on producing premium-quality products and backing them up with exceptional service, STIHL ensures a win-win situation for all involved. Thus, it enhances user experiences, provides opportunities for dealers, and reinforces the company’s reputation in the marketplace. 

Chris encourages people to experience the unique buying process and customer service offered by STIHL dealers, showcasing them as testaments to the company’s dedication to excellence and stakeholder satisfaction.

STIHL’s Blueprint For Cultivating Unmatched Customer Service And Market Distinction

As we reach the end of the discussion, Chris elaborates on how STIHL’s culture fosters exceptional customer service. He credits the company’s success to core values like continuous improvement, customer focus, and entrepreneurial spirit, which inspire the team to embody and apply these principles daily.

Chris hints at a process-oriented approach at the dealer level that enhances the buying experience, facilitated by both STIHL’s tools and additional resources designed to engage customers in a meaningful way. While he remains reserved about the specifics of these processes to maintain competitive advantage, the emphasis is on delivering value in a way that differentiates STIHL in the market.

Thank you for your time!


Lou Carter : The dynamic President and CEO of STIHL, the powerhouse in power tool manufacturing for a vast array of sectors, including professional forestry, agriculture, and construction, to name a few.

Ranking number 85 on 2023’s America's Top 100 Most Loved Workplaces, STIHL US operations are a critical part of their global network supplying over 100 markets worldwide from Virginia Beach. With a rich background at Stanley Black and Decker, Keffer’s strategic and customer focus leadership is steering STIHL toward innovative solutions and an enhanced omnichannel approach to serving customers.

Let's dive into how his vision, expertise, and commitment to being a certified Most Loved Workplace are shaping the future of STIHL.

Chris, it's so great to have you here today in The Leader Show. Can't wait to dive in with you on all the awesome culture, your personal beliefs and everything you do at STIHL. Welcome to The Newsweek Leader Show.

Chris Keffer : Thank you, Lou. Looking forward to participating. Thank you so much.

LC : Well, this is awesome. I'm really looking forward to learning about you and your principles around your platinum rule, which I always say this, I love this platinum rules beyond just treat others how you'd like to be treated. It's even more than that and accomplishments that you've had at STIHL, it's incredible the things that you've done there and the growth that you've heralded and that you've brought together really because of the collaboration you've had.

And the way that you develop really this extensive communication of your objectives for accomplishing your goals and collaboration. Let's start with that first, tell me about the platinum rule that you use at STIHL. Tell me about how that works for you and others and how you bring that to others.

Building A Customer-Centric And Employee-Focused Culture At STIHL [02:07]

CK : Yeah, thanks Lou. I mean, bottom line, treat other people how they would want to be treated and that means the way we approach the customer, the way we approach our employees. We want to make sure that we are customer-centric and that we feed our employees with the information and tools they need to know and have in order to execute for the customer.

And you can't do that without really solid communication. We have a very robust communications platform here at STIHL. We have a monthly standup where we talk with not all employees, all of our leaders every month, and we talk to all of our employees at least once a quarter, so that's really the foundation of it.

LC : I love that how you say you talk to them once a quarter, that kind of let's talk about what we're accountable for with regard to the goals and discuss. What does that look like the once a quarter where you talk all employees and how does that drive into other parts of the company during that quarter?

CK : Yeah, great question. We of course time those things very specifically. So it's usually the month right after the end of a quarter, and so our first meeting that we had this year was in January, and we really talk about clarity of mission. What are we trying to accomplish this year? What's our long-term vision? What's our strategy? What are our objectives for 2024, for example? And then how do those objectives tie into the individual contributors here at our facility?

And we've got several thousand employees here in Virginia Beach because it's not only an office where we have our administrative folks, but we also have a large manufacturing facility here as well. And so it's important that everybody's aligned to what our objectives are.

LC : That's awesome. The alignment of objectives, your open-door policy must have a big part of that. What does your open-door policy looks like that you believe in and sort of the spirit of collaboration and transparency and how does that have an impact as you see it on those goals being achieved during the year?

Leading By Example: Fostering Community, Collaboration, And Innovation At STIHL [04:06]

CK : Yeah, I think as a leader you have to be present, and so that's present both here in the office, but not just the office. I spend at least one portion of a day per week that I'm actually here in Virginia Beach walking through the plant or our finished goods warehouse. So you have to be around employees to make sure that yes, you can say what the objectives and messages are, what the strategic narrative is, but at the end of the day you have to actually walk around and talk with them and ensure that things are happening.

So, part of my open-door policy is absolutely people can come see me anytime, anybody, but it's also making yourself as the leader accessible to the people that have to be working out of our facility, which is a big facility and a big campus. So you have to get out there, you gotta get out and see the customer. So I spend a lot of time going out into the field and making sure that we're talking with our over 11,000 dealers in the field as well as big users that we have to do business with. So…..

LC : Dealers is a big part of the community and the collaboration that is involved. I remember talking to Bernie Marcus from Home Depot when he started Home Depot. It was all about the community. It was about vendors, suppliers, it was about customers and that beautiful kind of triangle that occurred between and among everybody to make something happen for the community. That's great. And make everybody profitable and also enrich as a result of the work that you do. It seems like that's similar to you at STIHL.

CK : Yeah, exactly right. You can't win without a very well-balanced team and that team is not only our employee base, but also our suppliers, our community here. We're very active in the Virginia Beach community and we're active across the country in our communities where we have offices across the country. And so that's absolutely right.

You have to be active with stakeholders, not just employees, but also people that you're doing business with, whether it's on the supply side or whether they're customers and also your local governmental agencies, charitable organizations. We are very, very active here locally in Virginia Beach on that front, and we have a very good partnership with the city of Virginia Beach and the state of Virginia.

So we're very fortunate to have those foundations established and it's a great relationship and everybody wins. That's a beautiful part of it. One example of that is we actually do a lot with local high schools where we have them come in and work on STEM programs and work through actually facilitating a product development process through a summer camp that we hold here every summer.

So we have probably about 10 local high schools come in. It's just an awesome thing. It really gets kids involved in what it means to actually make something here in the United States. It's a cool thing.

LC : That is cool and it's supporting this important issue of American jobs, supporting American jobs that you're doing, and increasingly we see globalization and how do we inside of Virginia Beach, inside of the US really enable that you're giving back and enabling a community program. So high school head schoolers can have this internship and learn the business so that they grow up, they give to their generations the very thing that STIHL has now for many years to come.

Innovating Through Learning And Partnerships At STIHL [07:14]

CK : Yes, indeed. Exactly right. Somebody very famously said, people may not remember what you've shown them, but they will remember how you make them feel. And experiential learning is something that we believe in, not only for our own employees, but also for those high school kids is a great example of that. So we do pick up interns as a result of those experiential things and sometimes those interns become employees, and so that's a long-term value chain in terms of how we get talent in the building as well.

LC : That's a great recruitment practice because you get to see sort of a quick, it's kind of like hackathon. You have people hacking, showing what they can do, excited about it, and you see their excitement levels. It seems like that's a big part of STIHL too, is excitement for the role, the job, the product, the dealers so that you have this really beautiful arrangement and relationship with your dealers and your employees because sentiment and emotion is probably a big part of that.

CK : Absolutely right. And the user is ultimately at the center. That's who we're trying to innovate for, but we cannot do it without the input of our dealers who are just fantastic partners for us. And it's great. We've got such a great relationship and a collaborative relationship with those dealers. They tell us when we're doing things well, but more importantly, they tell us when we need to improve something and that means we can course correct very quickly in the marketplace, and that's a strategic advantage for us.

LC : I like how you're positioning this with dealers in mind, centric in mind. It's almost like your employees too, right? Your dealers, your employees, meaning it's a part of your ecosystem. Your employees meaning think like that too because what they did in the survey, what we do in our survey is what did you do well and what can we do better? You're flipping the script on it, not just feeding back and saying, you did this wrong. It's saying, here's what we can do better. You can do better changing your mindset so that you're not blamed for it. You have something you know can improve upon. That seems like it's a part of what you do too.

CK : Yeah, growth mindset, and I'll give a nod to Carol Dweck here. I'm a big fan of that mentality, the continuous improvement mentality, and you're absolutely right. I think the survey is a great opportunity to us to look at the areas that we can do a better job of and we have actioned those things. Communication is one of those opportunities always, but that came out a little bit in the survey.

And so all the tumultuous times over the last couple of years that can breed a lot of confusion and it's paramount that there is a constant stream of what's happening, what are we focused on? What's the strategic narrative of the company? What are the things that are important? How do my objectives tie in? And that came directly from the survey, so we appreciate the clarity there. I think we did a good job and now we're trying to do a great job and it is about continuous improvement and growth mindset here at STIHL.

LC : It's not easy. That Road to Love is that ultimate loved workplace. It's not that easy. We look at the sentiment and how you get to love versus all those other emotions in and of itself. It's a path and you clearly have the right aspects of that in your leadership. What I like too about what you've done in your accomplishments is that you've come from a background that focuses on stakeholders and you found your way to CEO, that sales business development, direct in the front to your dealers working one-on-one.

People always say to me, what's the most important thing to business people yet cash flow. Okay, so we can't have people without cash flow. We just simply can't, we give the flow to people. So important, that aspect you've been in the forefront of and there must be something within you and that you do that has that close relationship with the customer.

Can you tell us a little bit about that, about what your philosophy is around how you stay close to customer in those extremely important roles that you've been in?

Building Success Through Relationships: The Core Of STIHL's Approach [11:10]

CK : Yeah, I mean this tools business is a relationship business. It is. And their customers, landscapers, forestry professionals washed up dads like me that maybe trying to do their own lawn care from time to time. It's about relationships. And so you have to get out there and see the customers and hear what's happening on the ground.

You cannot learn and change and adapt to what's happening in the marketplace by sitting in the office. And so our employee base knows that they have to get out with the customer, that they have to get out and understand from a user perspective what's important and from a dealer perspective, what's important.

And we've got very, very good and solid relationships in that regard. And we've got an organization that actually can help facilitate that quite well, whether it's access to the user or the dealer. And so we're never bereft of advice, which is an incredibly lucky thing for us to have, and it's taken us decades to really establish that core competency, so to speak.

So, we get out and we go see people and that is the fundamental basis to how we go and do this. And we've got some really good listeners and a great team here that listens.

LC : I like this theme that's coming out, which is the management by walking around and relationships, by walking around, not just to employees but dealers, customers, stakeholders and enabling the company to really see that. And I can get the sense, I come from an insurance agency background.

My family owned an insurance agency when I was a kid growing up, and we always had relationships with everyone in the community where we would be a personal relationship, but it took years and years to establish literally then it was 1928, everyone knew my grandfather and they loved him. His name was Louis Levine. My name is Louis Levine. And there was this kind of understanding that, oh, that's the Levine, that's Louis, and then there's the Uncle Louis and there's the kid Louis.

And there was this kind of family loving, respected, trusting relationship where I could trust them to take care of my insurance. Seems similar. I get that vibe from you. He seems similar. I can trust Chris to take care of right my equipment. I could trust him.

Rooted In Tradition, Growing Through Innovation: STIHL's Family Business Ethos [13:22]

CK : Lou, you're exactly right. I mean, we are a family business. A lot of people may look at our marketing program and the display behind me and our presence in the marketplace. It's a fairly big company, but it is a family business. This is not a private equity run business. It is a private family business. And we do talk with the family at important meeting times and they're somewhat separated, but at the same time they're very involved here and there.

And those family values, doing things the right way, long-term strategic vision, put the brand above everything else, make sure that we are supporting our servicing dealers. These are tenants that have been in place for almost a hundred years. We'll celebrate our 50th anniversary of being in the United States this year, but the business is almost a hundred years old and it is an important thing. These relationships and the way that we operate in the family feel of the company is a key part of the culture, really driven from the ownership group themselves. And so we're very lucky to have that here.

LC : It's awesome, isn't it? To be part of a family business.

CK : Beautiful thing. It really is a beautiful thing. It's a great thing that's been accomplished over a long, long period of time.

LC : In that era, the 1920s, 1920s, 1930s, the hundred year period was an essential era in business. It was when everything came out of the woodwork where we started to get an upswing, right? We came out of this dark, dark period and entrepreneurs came out and said, you know what? I can do this.

I can pull myself up from my bootstraps and I can do the right thing. I can put brand first, I can be trusted. That's what great businesses just period, businesses, global or not are all about. And it sounds like those kinds of values are right at the center of what STIHL's all about.

CK : A hundred percent entrepreneurial spirit is a company value that gets measured. Our founder, Andrea Stihl, really innovated the way that forestry is done and that's the basis for the company. And so that's why user at the center understanding what their problems are and how we can solve them. Those are the things that drive us. Couple that with the family values and doing the right thing all the time, supporting our servicing dealers and the way that we go to business is a competitive advantage for us.

And you're absolutely right. That entrepreneurial spirit is something that is highly valued here at STIHL. We reward that as well when we see it in action. So it's a beautiful thing and we love it.

LC : Chris, I wanted to also look at the value chain because it's important and especially I look at your dealers and the other industries you support. There's forestry, there's other industries. So you're at the epicenter of this very sort of giving commodity and equipment.

Tell me how does that factor into your leadership and how you see the larger relationships that you have with stakeholders? Do you find that you have several types of stakeholders in that value chain?

STIHL's Commitment To Quality Products And Unmatched Service [16:33]

CK : Absolutely. Of course, we've got our employees and their families here. We do a lot with our dealers who are really a conglomeration of small businesses for the most part. Although we do have some partnerships with some large independent dealers, maybe larger companies like ACE Hardware for example.

And those people all rely on us to execute for them. And then our users that actually use the product, I mean these people are using tools to make a living, whether they're construction personnel or landscape professionals or tree care forestry people or logging industry. These are all people that are relying on us to be durable, reliable, product does what it says it's going to do.

And then most importantly, the service behind it really delivered through the servicing dealer that's out there. This is the foundation of how we deliver for our stakeholders, how the relationships really matter and we do the right thing.

We make products that are going to hold up. We make them at the premium end of what the user's expectations are, and then we back it up with service. So if a user buys a STIHL, everybody's going to win. He's going to have a great experience with the product, the dealer is going to have a great opportunity.

Anybody that's watching go buy a steal and go check out the buying experience that our dealers deliver. It's unlike anything else out in the marketplace right now. I will tell you that right now, it's a beautiful thing to go buy a STIHL and see the facilitation of that customer service that our dealers deliver. It's really a wonderful thing.

LC : So I love that. I hear the resonance in that too, because man, to see that customer service, how does that happen in your culture? How does your culture enable that to happen? Can you tell me more about that? What is the culture to allow for that experience to happen?

STIHL's Culture-Driven Excellence: Shaping Superior Customer Experiences [18:21]

CK : Yeah, it's certainly culture, right? So the mentality that we've been talking about, continuous improvement, doing the right thing by the customer, user- first, customer centricity, an entrepreneurial spirit, but then we actually have to put it in action.

So there's a lot of things that we do at the dealer from a process perspective that makes it such a wonderful buying experience. And then there's after the fact, there's a lot of opportunities once we register somebody that buys one of our products to re engage, not in an annoying way, but in a value added way. And that's one of the ways, this process of what happens when you go buy a product from one of our dealers, that is a very metered and scripted process.

There are tools at the dealer level, tools outside of our tools that help drive that engagement of the user and value add for the user at the dealer level, again, delivered by the dealer to the end user. So I don't want to be overly cryptic, but I also don't want to give away the secret sauce, if you know what I mean.

LC : Right On. Easily asked questions could be what is that right? What are the dual, what are, which is fine. What's important here is that you have a process that's been innovated by a culture that is all about continuous improvement and developing an awesome experience for your customer.

CK : Exactly right. That's well said. So that's exactly what it is.

LC : So, Chris Keffer here today on the Newsweek Leader Show. What a fantastic time understanding you, your company, STIHL, its values, where you've come from almost a hundred years old, your contributions to the forestry industry, to exploring and giving the best customer service and being at the forefront of an amazing stakeholder experience and for your dealers. Chris, you're making this happen and you're doing an awesome job at it at STIHL. Thank you so much for being on with us today on The Leader Show.

CK : Lou, thank you for having us. And I'll just end with this. It's the team that's ultimately delivering the experience, and we've got a fantastic team that's doing a great job for us. So I want to thank them for all the help and progress that we've made, and thanks again for putting us on the list. We're looking forward to it. We're glad to be 85. We're looking to get to number one though in the continuous improvement mindset. So thank you.

LC : Thanks, Chris.

CK : Take care, Lou.