Carl Kiekhaefer: Marine Industry Revolutionist
Elmer Carl Kiekhaefer (June 4, 1906 – October 5, 1983)
In every industry there are pioneers, inventors and hawkers but the real changemakers are the ones that are revolutionists. They are seldom the first in any given arena but they are the first to re-purpose, reinvent and create markets that weren’t realized before. Carl Kiekhaefer was a revolutionist engineer that used his passion for engineering, competitiveness and salesmanship to change the marine industry. Not only were his inventions and marketing strategies novel but you see them emulated today across many different industries at every scale. James Dyson didn’t invent the vacuum, he just made one that outperformed the competition. Elon Musk didn’t invent the electric car, he just designed the best one and let the product lead the marketing side. One could go on and on, in fact it is often surmised by thought leaders, including research author Malcolm Gladwell, that you don’t want to be first to market, you want to be third; allowing for a better position to shift and change.
How did Kiekhaefer manage to revolutionize the marine industry? Carl managed to see the shortcomings of how Evinrude and other manufacturers approached product design and marketing, then through a series of inventions, production and demonstrating a penchant for marketing that was unheard of at the time, Kiekhaefer utilized technology he developed outside of the marine industry to eventually make the market leading outboard engines that changed the industry. Yet, the most interesting part of the story is that Carl never sought out to do that.
Kiekhaefer originally bought a failed manufacturing facility in Wisconsin, with the intention of using the infrastructure to get into the industrial side of the dairy industry. In a fascinating account of American History, author Ryan Gierach talks about the events surrounding the eventually birth of Kiekhaefer Corporation in his incredible book, Cedarburg: A History Set in Stone, (2003). It was noted that Kiekhaefer would spend much time tinkering with his fathers mechanical tractor, only to have a falling out with his dad to pursue his own interests. And this is where it gets very interesting. Carl’s uncle, John Blank, was the mayor of Cedarburg and heavily involved in the business of the city. Blank had encouraged a man named Thor Hansen at the time to utilize the defunct Cedarburg Manufacturing Company to build his small motors. Financed by the Cedarburg State Bank, the operation produced around 300 outboard engines, secured a large retail channel with one major pitfall, the Thor engines were unreliable and had some major flaws; the orders were cancelled and now the city, the bank and everyone involved needed a new plan to divest of the this money loser or rekindle it somehow. (Geirach, 2003).
Carl Kiekhaefer was the answer, Carl would take over the facility, potentially sell the engines for scrap and begin tooling to make separators for the dairy industry. Before this, Carl had become the chief engineer for Wisconsin based Stearns Magnetic, which specialized in small motors. When he looked over the new plant and saw the Thor motors; with his engineering expertise, Carl saw why the Thor outboard failed. He immediately redesigned the weak links, apparently the driveshaft and fuel system were the major faults, and with a new product, somehow reacquired the retail contract with Montgomery Ward. Kiekhaefer Marine was born and according to Geirach, he sold 32,000 engines only a year later, second only to Evinrude at the time, making a massive return on investment.
Following that, Kiekhaefer had to fight to keep the business, despite the impressive performance, the financers wanted to sell the facility right away for a tidy profit. Carl had to convince every investor that he would supercede any immediate profit over the long haul, they were eventually convinced and that set the tone for what would become Mercury Marine. Like all stories the politics provides the drama and in what Gierach sites as “retribution” for attempting to sell his facility, he setup the next shop in Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin instead of Cedarburg. Of course, this is just a portion of the story. If you want the definitive biography on Elmer Carl Kiekhaefer, you need the wonderfully detailed book, Iron Fist: The Lives of Carl Kiekhaefer, by Jeffrey L. Rodengen. Iron Fist is incredible and anyone interested in business, engineering and fascinating people would find it to be a great read.
What made Kiekhaefer so successful though? With over 200 patents to his name, you know he was inventive and driven but I think what separates engineers and inventors and true revolutionists, is their ability to sell a vision of the future. Carl Kiekhaefer did this very well, in fact you can see the pattern in his product evolutions and sales methodology in today’s leading entrepreneurs. During the war, the military was having trouble making small light engines for simulator drones, so Kiekhaefer built tiny twin cylinder engines that met the requirements, showcasing the engineering prowess of the outboard maker. In Iron Fist, Rodengen sites the passion Kiekhaefer held for not only the products he was making but by his demands on those that worked for him. There was a sense that he was a perfectionist, with high expectations of those working for him and ultimately wanted to build nothing less than the best engines in the world.
On the marketing side, Kiekhaefer started a racing team in NASCAR in 1955, he used Chrysler cars and assembled a championship team in short order. With the success of his outboard motor company, NASCAR led to national marketing that directly related to the innovation and reliability his engines were known for. Expertise and innovation in racing led to the success in NASCAR. Although in 1957, there were some changes to NASCAR rules that prevented Kiekhaefer Outboards from continuing the race team.
For the outboards themselves, the most amazing marketing effort the industry had ever seen, and still is more interesting than any current branded content marketing schemes you see in today’s marine industry, was the Mark 75 endurance records. Kiekhaefer ran two Mark 75s continuously for 34 days and 11 hours, without stopping, refueling on the fly. Those engines logged approximately 25,000 miles (50,000 total). Needless to say, the innovative 6 cylinder 60 HP Mark 75 was a turning point for outboard engines. All of this culminated into market leading products, the sale to Brunswick Corporation and the formation of Kiekhaefer Aeromarine Motors, eventually bought and operated by his son Fred Kiekhaefer. Later Fred and the company would become part of Mercury Racing.
The ultimate test for durability and performance. Refueling the 15' Raveau with the iconic Mercury Mark 75. 25,000 miles, at 30 MPH, 24 hrs/day. Part test, part showmanship. (credit:woodyboater.com)
Passion for engineering and innovation was the basis for his success but his ability to change the market was led by products which he never hesitated to put at the forefront through testing and racing. Carl Kiekhaefer was a master innovator and a master marketer that revolutionized the industry.
Lots of industry firsts for Mercury, first splined prop shaft, the first V6 and the first 100 HP outboard: 1962 Mercury 1000