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August 22, 2017

An interview with Viking Founder Fred Carl, Jr.: Cooking with Gas

The Viking Range Corporation may have started with Fred Carl’s quest to find and eventually build a professional-level range for his wife, Margaret, an avid cook, but he quickly sensed the potential for a business spawned by America’s burgeoning food movement. Serious home cooks wanted top-quality appliances, and aspiring cooks sure liked the way those Viking stoves looked in their kitchens. In January, 1987, Viking started shipping its first ranges, with manufacturing eventually located in Fred’s hometown of Greenwood, Miss., to accommodate the increased demand. In 1992, Viking began a 21-year relationship with Stephens, through the private equity group. With Stephens as a partner, Viking was able to build new manufacturing facilities, offer a wider range of products, and invest in brand extensions, including a renowned cooking school and an award-winning boutique hotel.  

Q: Viking changed the way people cooked, designed their kitchens, and thought about the home-cooking experience. Did you have a sense you were a disrupter or did you think your design would be a one-off experiment?

A: I didn't perceive myself as a disrupter but I was pretty excited when I realized nothing like that was on the market and I was going be the first. Early on I was thinking that if I could produce a thousand ranges a year that would be a huge success.

I was willing to deal with the consequences if it didn’t work out. And I surrounded myself with others, especially in the early days, who were experienced in the industry and were willing to take the chance with me.

Q: At what point did you realize you needed capital to grow your business and how did you find the capital?

A: Around 1992 I commented to a friend of mine here in Greenwood who worked for Stephens that I would probably need a partner with the capabilities to take us to the next level. He mentioned it to someone at Stephens and then he called me. I’ll never forget that phone call. He said, “I've got somebody who might want to talk to you, would you be interested in talking to them?” And I said “Yeah, absolutely.”

Q: What role did Stephens play in helping you achieve your goals?

A: Stephens got involved with us in the very early stage of the company – in 1992, just a few years after we started making product. We had our little factory and our sales were around $13 million. We were a start-up but we were also a real business, with dealers and distributors. The market for our product had just exploded and we literally could not build it fast enough.  So we needed help in expanding our production capabilities.

And that’s where Stephens came in and took the risk with us – that the demand would last, and that we were up to becoming a bigger company. That relationship was extremely special and enduring. They were our partner until we sold the business in 2013.

Q: Did you envision the impact Viking would have on your hometown?

A: I considered other locations, but Greenwood won out. We put together a little operation there and as we grew we hired more and more people.

I did want to help my hometown but only after we had gotten a good bit bigger did I start thinking we could make an impact on this town and also create an image for our company. We created a mystique about Viking and people wanted to know what the heck is going on in that little town and how are they doing that.

We expanded our product line and started doing things like cooking schools, creating a culture around our company that was very valuable from a marketing standpoint. Part of that was helping to revitalize our downtown business district, which was about dried up and blown away. We had a unique culture in the appliance industry and dealers all over the country took pride in being part of it. They started bragging about being a dealer for Viking -- the company that's in that little town in Mississippi that's doing neat things.

Q: Was that a selling point for the appliances?

A: People were impressed with the product as well as the fact that that we were making  world-class products in a tiny town with a workforce that is almost right off the farm. I always preached to everyone we're an appliance manufacturer but most of all we are a culinary company and we've got to think of ourselves that way, not as mechanics stamping metal to make a product.

That culture was established from the very beginning and it spread to the dealers. All those ingredients helped Viking become a unique company and brand in the appliance industry.

Q: Your story has some interesting parallels with that of Williams Sonoma founder Chuck Williams. Did you know him?

A: I got to know him mostly through the Culinary Institute of America, where I was on the board  for 12 years. Personally, I’m grateful to him because I had gone to Williams Sonoma in the early days of Viking and they sold our products in all of their stores, which was a huge benefit.

Q: What was the greatest satisfaction you got from Viking’s success?  

A: Creating jobs as an entrepreneur and the fact that rapid growth creates more and more jobs every day gave me a lot of satisfaction, as did hiring inexperienced young people and seeing their careers grow and blossom as the company grew. Using ourselves as an example for others to pursue their dreams was something that meant a lot to me.

Q: Do you have any advice for folks looking to make a foray into entrepreneurship?

A: Chase your dreams. You have to be tough and believe in yourself and in what you're trying to do, but if you do, you can overcome the obstacles. Some governments and systems stifle creativity but in the United States, the sky’s the limit. Your imagination can go crazy and if it's something worth pursuing you can do so. Capitalism feeds the imagination and encourages it. The combination of capitalism and creativity is very, very powerful. And you’re incredibly lucky if you find the right partner. I had two: my wife, who spurred me on to start the company, and I had Stephens, who helped me grow it.

Q: Why did Stephens make sense as a partner for you in growing Viking?

A: The culture was a good match with Viking’s. Our values all were in sync and I immediately recognized that Stephens was a company made up of people who cared and understood what I was doing, the risks that were involved, and what we had to do to make it successful. 


For more on this topic, view Chuck Williams | This is Capitalism 

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