A former colleague recalls the days when Charlie Strang, now 91, ran a thriving outboard company
Charles D. “Charlie” Strang, former No. 2 executive at Mercury Marine under Carl Kiekhaefer and later chairman and CEO of Outboard Marine Corp., is an industry icon second to none. And what’s amazing is that at 91 he’s still going strong — very strong.
I hadn’t talked with him since we were at the Miami boat show four years ago to take part in Evinrude’s 100th anniversary, so I called him recently to see how he was doing. I was amazed at how sharp and energetic he sounded on the phone. At first I wasn’t sure it was him — he sounded like a 30-year-old. I even said, “Charlie, is this you?” He assured me it was. When I inquired about his health, he said, “It’s excellent.”
I asked how he manages to stay so young and energetic? He laughed and said, “Well, my doctor asks me the same thing. He says if he could figure out how I do it he would bottle it and make a lot of money.”
An engineering genius, Strang has contributed more to the boating industry in overall technology and engine product development than anyone I know, and in my 50-plus years in this industry I have known a lot of successful dealers and manufacturers you could consider industry icons.
Strang’s love of boating started at 10, when his mother took him to the 1931 New York Boat Show. He saw a Century Cyclone racing boat and fell in love with it. His mother finally bought one for him when he turned 15 in 1936. From then on, racing was his major passion. The next summer, he started racing and became a consistent winner. When World War II put an end to racing, he was the reigning New York state champion.
“I found an old newspaper clipping reporting on my wins at a regatta in Wildwood, N.J. — 72 years ago,” Strang said. “While I still have the trophies I won at Wildwood, my primary memory of that regatta is of famous Canadian-American bandleader Guy Lombardo trying to borrow a pair of pliers and my ‘crew chief’ refusing to lend them to him until I intervened. Guy Lombardo, who was almost a neighbor of ours on Long Island, raced inboard hydroplanes in those days. He was a neat fellow who served for a while as an officer of the American Power Boat Association.”
After college, Strang worked for a while in the experimental engineering department at Wright Aeronautical Corp. He joined the staff of the mechanical engineering department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for four years, teaching undergraduate and graduate classes and conducting research in tribophysics, the science of interacting surfaces in relative motion. It was at MIT that he met and became friends with Edgar Rose, a post-graduate student there, who later worked for Strang as an engineer at Mercury and then at OMC.
‘If you are so damn smart’
In 1950, at the American Power Boat Association National Outboard Championships near Winter Haven, Fla., Strang had a brief encounter with Carl Kiekhaefer when he accused the race judges of making an unfair call on one of Kiekhaefer’s drivers. Kiekhaefer overheard Strang defending the driver and thanked him for his support.
Strang later ran into Kiekhaefer at the APBA’s annual meeting. It was then that Strang asked him why Mercury didn’t build a bigger-horsepower outboard. “If you are so damn smart, why don’t you come and build it for us?” Kiekhaefer responded. In June 1951, Strang went to work for Kiekhaefer and eventually became executive vice president, second only to Kiekhaefer in the company.
I asked Strang why he eventually left Kiekhaefer. He said, “In 1961, Carl Kiekhaefer sold the company to Brunswick but continued to manage the business. Carl just couldn’t accept the fact that he had sold it and it was no longer his. He had many conflicts with Brunswick after the sale that continued to escalate.
“Carl had arranged it so that no one from Brunswick could call anyone at Mercury except him or me. Night after night, Tom King, VP of marketing, and I would meet with Carl at his house, and he would fume and stew and plot about leaving the company. One night we all sat at his typewriter and typed our resignations. But the next morning he called and said, ‘Forget about the resignations. I have too much invested in all this, and I can’t afford to leave it.’
“Then a couple of days later he called and said, ‘I did something wrong.’ I said, ‘What was that?’ He said, ‘I was down talking to Ted Bensinger [Brunswick’s CEO], and I lost my temper and told them you and King were going to quit. So you two are supposed to take the airplane and fly down to Chicago.’ So we flew down and met with the new president, John Hanigan. Hanigan said, ‘Why are you guys leaving?’ I told him we wanted to start our own company and make some capital gains. Hanigan said, ‘That is BS. … You just can’t stand Kiekhaefer.’ I said, ‘Yeah, we can.’ He said ‘No, you can’t and you know it.’ But this wasn’t true. I liked Carl Kiekhaefer.
“Hanigan then said, ‘Well, I am telling you this: On Monday I am firing Kiekhaefer, and you are going to be the president.’ At this point I told him I wouldn’t accept being president because it would hurt Carl. And it went on and on from there. After much hassling between Kiekhaefer, Brunswick and myself over quite a period of time, I finally resigned in June of 1964.”
The route to OMC
After leaving Kiekhaefer, Strang did consulting work for a couple of years. “During the two years between working for Mercury and OMC I did work for Rover Motor Cars of Great Britain the first year,” Strang said. “The second year, I consulted with both Rover Motor Cars and with an Evinrude distributor, Doc Jones, who had a high-performance machine shop in Phoenix, Ariz. I also did some work for the American Chain & Cable Corp.
“Doc Jones had me designing gearcases for OMC engines,” Strang added. ”I was given this project because Ralph Evinrude had personally been doing some product testing down in Stuart, Fla., and he found that the gearcase OMC was using then was substantially slower than the one Mercury had. So I spent a year developing a new high-speed gearcase for OMC.
“I later found out that the whole deal of my working for Doc Jones was a kind of setup. OMC wanted to hire me, but they were concerned that I might be too close to Carl Kiekhaefer. So the deal with Doc Jones was really to get to know me and see where my loyalties were. This led to a job offer at Outboard Marine, where I started out as head of their marine engineering.”
About a year after joining OMC Strang hired Rose, who had worked for Strang at Mercury. Rose had left Mercury to return to the East Coast, and he later returned to the Midwest for a job in Chicago with a company that made electronic machine tools.
With Strang’s engineering successes, first at Mercury and then at OMC, he began climbing the corporate ladder to president and general manager in 1974, president and CEO in 1980 and chairman of the board in 1982.
Rose became vice president of engineering. Under Strang’s leadership, Evinrude & Johnson experienced continuous growth in performance, product quality and success in product development and in the industry horsepower race. He also was a moving force behind OMC getting into the boat and engine package business with the purchase of several quality boat brands.
Strang retired at the OMC annual meeting Jan. 18, 1990. “A few years earlier, I had been instrumental in putting an age limit of 70 on OMC’s board members, primarily to keep Wall Street happy,” he said. “Then I was the first officer caught by that rule just a few months after reaching that age limit.”
If it weren’t for that rule, Strang very likely would have stayed on as chairman for a few more years. And I personally believe that if he had stayed on, OMC would not have gone bankrupt, as it did in 2000. After his retirement, OMC started a slow downward spiral under the leadership — or in some cases the lack of leadership — of some of the four chairmen who succeeded him.
Two of them had no background or experience whatsoever in the marine industry. And a few years after Charlie retired, a disastrous program of outsourcing many key engine parts was implemented. The quality of the outsourced parts just was not up to the standards Strang demanded when he was chairman. In fact, when BRP took over bankrupt OMC, it had to scrap millions of dollars’ worth of pistons, crankshafts and more because of the failed outsourcing program.
OMC’s outboard market share was a healthy 60 percent when Strang retired in 1990. “I’ll never understand how they got from such a high market share down to 9 percent and bankruptcy in 10 years,” he said. “That takes some kind of talent.”
Frankly, it left many of us OMC veterans puzzled.
Shifting to a role in racing
Strang was presented an American Success Award by President George H.W. Bush in the Rose Garden in 1989. He also received an honorary doctor of business administration degree from a Florida university. In 1990 he was elected to the NMMA Hall of Fame.
After retirement, he became involved in motor sports. “After I retired from OMC, I was national commissioner for NASCAR for 10 years,” Strang said. “I retired from that, but I still go to NASCAR main events. Now I am mainly involved in boat racing. I am national commissioner of the American Power Boat Association. And I have been involved in the Union of International Motorboating for many years. I became senior vice president of UIM. Then I was president for a year, although I didn’t run for it.
“After that I went back to senior vice president, a position I held until I finally decided it was time to stop traveling to Europe because I had been doing that four or five times a year.
“I think I have flown the ocean approximately 150 times now, which gets to be a real pain,” he added. “I decided I have had enough of this, so I resigned recently from the UIM senior VP position. Then the president just called me and asked me to stay on for another year, with the understanding that I could function by email and Skype instead of repeat flights to Europe and elsewhere. I agreed.”
I asked Strang how many patents he had been granted during his many years of engineering work. “Probably about three dozen or so,” he said, “but the most significant patent actually isn’t in my name. It is in Jim Wynne’s name — the sterndrive concept. I made my first drawings of the sterndrive concept during my years at MIT. When I moved to Mercury, I tried to interest Carl Kiekhaefer in the concept, but he wanted no part of it. A few years later I acquainted Jim Wynne, who was also at Mercury, with the idea, and he worked closely with me on it thereafter. After leaving Mercury, and while in Sweden on a trans-Atlantic project for Johnson Outboards, Jim Wynne sold Volvo Penta on the sterndrive idea. Then after the Volvo Penta drive hit the market with considerable success, Carl Kiekhaefer changed his tune and reluctantly let us develop the MerCruiser drives, which eventually did wonders for Mercury Marine.”
After talking with Strang, I phoned my good friend Bill Ek, a veteran of the marine industry who grew up in the boat business. His father owned Shell Lake Boats, where Ek worked during his high school and college years. Bill was later an executive for several well-known boat brands before joining OMC. When I told Ek about my visit with Strang, he said, “I really respected Charlie, and working for him was an absolutely fantastic experience. After I was put in charge of OMC Stern Drive, I appreciated the fact that Charlie did not micromanage me. When Charlie put people in charge of a product or department, he trusted them. It was a real pleasure working for him.”
A few days later I chatted with industry and OMC veteran Rose, another fan of Strang. Rose said, “Charlie Strang is a damn good engineer and was always extremely fair to work for. He is a very logical person, which always appealed to me. And he was never into corporate politics; he was just interested in getting results.”
I only hope I make it to Strang’s age. And if I do I pray that I will not only still make sense but also be as sharp as he is.
As 1940s major league baseball player and homespun philosopher Satchel Paige once said, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”
I think Strang would be no more than 50.
Ben Sherwood, a 50-year veteran of the marine industry, was head of sales and marketing at Evinrude & Johnson during most of the years when Charlie Strang was chairman of Outboard Marine Corp. After retiring from OMC he was a marine trade magazine columnist for 18 years and authored the book “How to Succeed in Marine Retailing.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue.