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Interviews


John Stahler T'69
President and CEO, Tecnica USA

Visit Date: September 30, 2003

John Stahler is a partner and management committee member of the Tecnica Group, an Italian business that owns and manages sports-equipment companies, including Tecnica (ski, hike), Nordica (ski), Rollerblade (in-line skates), Lowa (hike), Dolomite (ski, hike), and Nitro (snowboard). The company also has shares in Marker (ski, apparel). The Tecnica Group is a closely held company, with four partners. Corporate headquarters are located near Venice, Italy. The U.S. companies are located in Lebanon, N.H.

Center for Private Equity and Entrepreneurship (CPEE): What was your career path after Tuck? What led you to pursue a career as an entrepreneur?

Stahler: I did the traditional corporate thing for four years after graduating from Tuck, not being enamored by traditional MBA jobs-such as banking and brand management -which were popular at the time. During those years, I often felt I wasn't in complete control of my future in terms of where I would work and what type of work I would do. When you work for big and medium-sized corporations, many times the decisions about location and function are out of your hands. I learned that having this control was something very important to me, and I started to plan a way to achieve it. My first decision was to downsize. I sought and found a general management position in a small ski equipment distribution company in the Hanover area. Although I was working for someone other than myself, I was helping to create business for this company. It was in every sense an entrepreneurial environment.

While I was working for this company, I was approached by the Tecnica Group to help them start a U.S. business. I took the opportunity, as this was exactly the entrepreneurial situation I wanted. The key element to this deal (and all my further business deals) with Tecnica was that I was operating individually, on behalf of my independent company, and that all relationships were in the form of either joint ventures or equity participations. This meant I was operating as a true entrepreneur and not working for anyone but myself. I have maintained this work structure for myself ever since. I was successful in the first endeavor with Tecnica, and later acquired and started several other companies (all are now part of the Tecnica Group). The ensuing success of the first few companies I acquired allowed me to be very selective in future acquisitions. My equity ownership in Tecnica (Italy) protects the interests of my U.S. companies and provides an exit strategy.

CPEE: What challenges did you face early on? How did you get through them?

Stahler: The biggest obstacle I faced early on-and every day since-is related to people: hiring the good ones and then challenging them enough so they'll stay. My companies are small, and in small companies it is hard to keep good people because there are so few positions at the top. You are almost selling a promise, since your small business will inevitably be highly leveraged and it takes time to build the infrastructure. As part of our success, our highest priority has been personnel development and attention to career-path creation.

We've handled the people management part (managing individuals and their tasks in every area of the company, from production to marketing to finance) through the creation of a proprietary information technology system that streamlines all the processes and allows us to keep in close touch with each functional area. In my companies, many of our best performers have been "home grown." This becomes a necessity in smaller companies located in more remote geographical areas, such as ours. Once the company has enough continuous growth, it is able to attract outside talent through the appeal of its success, its reputation, and the benefits of its unconventional location. It can promise growth in a mature, stable environment.

CPEE: What advice would you give a Tuck MBA who wants to be an entrepreneur?

Stahler: First, I would say you have to be comfortable with yourself. Know your priorities, what you want to do, and where your strengths and talents lie. Also, be realistic about your skills and whether you will be able to apply those skills to what you want to do. Entrepreneurship is an interesting process, but you still have to like what you do for work each day.

With regard to building a company on an entrepreneurial idea, you have to be sure there is a real need for your idea, the need is well defined, and that people will pay enough money for your product or service.

CPEE: After starting your own company, what were your biggest concerns? What kept you up at night?

Stahler: In the beginning it was all cash flow. Were my customers paying me and could I pay my employees? Today, my company is mature. Experienced people working within the company have the responsibility to worry about its day-to-day functioning, including marketing, finance, personnel and accounting issues. I'm more concerned with the long-term strategies, and whether or not the company will have the financial capabilities to deal with future growth opportunities. I have always thought deeply about the company's relationships with its customers and the image of its products. Finding the balance between achieving excellence and being realistic has always kept me up at night.

Additionally, and very importantly, I spend time each day to ensure that we don't "blow it." Our company is well established. As long as we don't make any mistakes, we will move ahead and grow. I spend time to ensure that we don't make financial, marketing, customer service or production decisions and actions that will jeopardize this momentum. In a sense, I play defense. My overall goal is to make sure that we stay positioned to do business right in the long term.

CPEE: What part of your Tuck education has been most useful to you as an entrepreneur?

Stahler: Business strategy and analysis, business policy, and financial/accounting courses have been the most useful to me. All these courses provided me with a framework for good thinking, which is crucial to an entrepreneur. In retrospect, I wish I had taken more courses in accounting and business law. Writing and communications courses were also very valuable. It is crucial to be able to write clearly and concisely, in particular when presenting and communicating with customers and bankers.

CPEE: What is your best tip for Tuck students who hope to be successful entrepreneurs?

Stahler: MBAs are great at being able to "figure it out." Entrepreneurs, like myself, hire them to come into our businesses and figure out problems- with our strategy, etc. It is very important that every MBA master this skill. In addition, I suggest that all Tuck students and graduates make sure they are able to do something tangible and real-such as selling, production, raising money-and that they highlight this skill as their other talent, as their unique way to add value. "Figuring it out" is only part of the job. As an entrepreneur, you also have to find a solution.

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