By Matt Trulio
The Passion of Fred Kiekhaefer
The outgoing Mercury Racing president leaves a legacy of engine innovation and excellence.
Several years back, Skip Braver, the owner and chief executive officer of iconic high-performance powerboat builder Cigarette Racing Team explained his decision to go exclusively with Mercury Racing engine power in all of the Opa-Locka, Fla., company’s custom creations. Prior to Braver’s mandate, buyers could order Cigarette V-bottoms with just about any go-fast marine engine builder’s products.
Braver’s decision ruffled more than a few feathers in the engine-building community at the time, but he had his reasons. And they were legit.
“Listen, we don’t build engines at Cigarette, none of the major custom boat builders do,” said Braver. “So when an engine breaks on the water, it’s not, ‘This guy’s engine broke again or that guy’s engine broke again,” it’s ‘The damn Cigarette broke again.’ I don’t want that, I can’t have that, and that’s why we will only install Mercury Racing power in our boats. It isn’t cheap, but it’s reliable, and I think a lot of that has to do with the way Freddy runs that company.”
“Freddy” is Fred Kiekhaefer, the president of Mercury Racing, who after more 20 years at the helm of the Fond Du Lac, Wis., high-performance marine engine company, recently left the outfit. Assuming the role of general manager for Mercury Racing is Erik Christiansen, the lead engineer on the company’s sophisticated 1350 and 1100 quad overhead cam turbocharged engine projects.
“I will continue as a consultant for Mercury Racing for the next two years, “ Kiekhaefer said. “And I will be moving into engineering and design-related projects. While I am consulting for Mercury Racing, I can work on anything that does not directly complete with Mercury Racing products. I will work on things that are complementary, not competitive.”
Kiekhaefer, 65, is the son of marine industry icon Carl Kiekhaefer, who founded Kiekhaefer Aeromarine Company and is largely credited with introducing the stern drive to marine market. When he died, Fred inherited the then-struggling company in the early 1980s. Bright and well educated—Kiekhaefer holds a master’s degree in engineering from the University of Wisconsin in Madison and an MBA from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill, he reversed the company’s fortunes and sold it to Brunswick in 1990. With Kiekhaefer at the helm, Mercury Racing became the high-performance marine engine leader and moved an estimated $250 million in product.
“I was off being a consultant for Price Waterhouse in the Chicago office when my father passed away in 1983,” Kiekhaefer recalled. “He died, and he kind of left my mom holding the bag with Kiekhaefer Aeromarine, so I bought the assets from his estate and worked hard to be build a viable concern out of something that was not, at the time, a viable concern. In hindsight, it was probably more risk than I realized.”
Given his MBA mindset, it was only natural that Kiekhaefer take a hard look—and get rid of—the products that were losing money for the company. Ironically, at least given where he would end up, the first thing to go was the company’s offshore racing engine line.
“When I got there, I asked people at the company what we were doing that made absolutely no sense, and the first things to come up were the engines,” he said. “They were so much work and we weren’t charging enough. So we stopped. It was not that we couldn’t build a good engine, but the first thing I had to ask was which things were making our wallet thicker and thinner at the end of the day. We had very hard, very honest conversations back then, and I put it in very hard terms: If we do not start making money right now we have 60 days left.
“Actually, I was being optimistic,” he added, then laughed. “I thought we had about 30 days.”
What a difference a few decades makes. Today, Mercury Racing is the dominant player—commanding more than 90 percent of the go-fast boat market by most reports—in the high-performance marine engine game. Kiekhaefer controls (throttles and shifters) and K-Planes (the company’s proprietary trim tabs that are the standard for high-performance boats) still bring value to Mercury Racing’s bottom line, but engines are its mainstay.
Under Kiekhaefer’s leadership, Mercury Racing released a number of standard-setting engines. Still in the line as the “smallest power” offered, the 525EFI has been the company’s biggest seller thanks to its superior reliability. Cut from the line two years ago with the release of the quad overheard cam turbocharged 1350 and 1100, the 1075SCi engine raised the bar on performance and reliability—at least at the time—for all supercharged engines in the 1,000-hp range. The drive paired with it, the No. 6 dry sump unit, also was the most “bulletproof” outdrive of its age.
But the quad overhead cam turbo 1350 and 1100 engine packages with even stronger M8 drives, again developed and released under Kiekhaefer’s leadership, raised the bar to a level that forced even Mercury Racing’s most solid competitors to rethink their positions in the market. Ask Mike D’Anniballe at Sterling Performance in Michigan, Tommy Hofstetter at Chief Engines in Florida, and Bob Teague at Teague Custom Marine in California—big name marine engine builders to be sure—and you’ll hear the same words when it comes to the 1350 and 1100: They are game changers.
“I am delighted with the results of the quad cam [1350 and 1100] engine product,” said Kiekhaefer. “I have been working hard my entire time at Mercury Racing to improve engine reliability and durability, and getting the green light to do something like is very, very satisfying.”
For Kiekhaefer, departing Mercury Racing is bittersweet. He is quick to point out that he is ready for a change and that Christiansen is ready to take on the role of general manager. He’s even quicker to point out that he cherished his roles as “servant” to his employees, Mercury Racing’s customers, and the shareholders of publicly traded Brunswick Corp.
“I have always felt that a leader is at his best when he serves others: when he serves the needs of his customers, the needs of those who have decided to work with him, and the needs of the shareholders who have provided the investment in the company he has been privileged to run,” he said. “I have always felt that one gets more from giving than receiving.”
And how would Kiekhaefer like to be remembered in the high-performance marine industry?
“When I’m done—and I’m not—as a guy who brought product innovation that resulted in more fun, with less hassle, for his customers,” he said. “It is not about, ‘Gee whiz, we made a lot of money!’ I like to think I’ve worked my tail off delivering fun. For me, it’s about creativity, the joy of being on the water, having fun in this sport, and sharing a passion for performance with friends—old and new. I’d like to be remembered as a serious toymaker who helped people have fun and build relationships. For me, the most fun is just…more fun.”
- Matt Trulio is the co-publisher and editor in chief of speedonthewater.com, a daily news site with a weekly newsletter and a new bi-monthly digital magazine that covers the high-performance powerboating world. The former editor-in-chief of Sportboat magazine and editor at large of Powerboat magazine, Trulio has covered the go-fast powerboat world since 1995. Since joining boats.com in 2000, he has written more than 200 features and blogs.
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