The Man Who Saved Fender

By Ritchie FlieglerSenior Vice President of Market Development, Fender Musical Instruments

SADLY, AS FENDER WAS CELEBRATING ITS DIAMOND ANNIVERSARY, the company lost one of its iconic leaders, William “Bill” Schultz on September 21, 2006. He was 80 years old, and had battled cancer for 17 years. In 1985, Schultz led an employee buyout of Fender from then-owner CBS—a regime that had put the Fender brand into a steady decline. Under Schultz’s impassioned and visionary leadership, Fender was restored to its former glory and then some.

I’d like to offer some thoughts on Bill Schultz, and to attempt to explain what he meant to those of us here at Fender who were lucky enough to bask in his bright light. I’m not the most senior, or longest-standing Fender employee—and others were closer to Bill outside of work—but we shared a preference for Manhattans. That is, until he went over to martinis. A few months before Bill’s passing, Fender Senior Vice President of Marketing Richard McDonald and I met him for lunch. Bill ordered a martini, and I called him on it. He explained that it was easier to hide the after effects of vodka as opposed to whiskey, and that his doctor and Mary Jane (his wife of more than 60 years) told him to stop drinking. So here we were shooting the breeze with our mentor while he’s sneaking a guilty pleasure—a bunch of musicians sneaking a drink. Imagine that!

Those of us who knew Bill could see things weren’t going well the past few months, and we all dealt with this in our own fashion. For most of us, this meant making the most of our moments together—getting that last tidbit of advice, that last scolding, or maybe even a pat on the back—so they were inhaled and savored like a fine bouquet.

Bill was a complex man. He glowed in the dark. Former Fender Senior Vice President of R&D Dan Smith called him “the greatest man we will ever know. He could bring you to the top of the mountain, and then slam you back to earth—all in one sentence.”

Bill Mendello—Fender’s current CEO, and Bill’s partner for more than 25 years—said, “Bill could do it all. When he was with sales guys, he was a sales guy. When he was at the factory, he was a manufacturing guy. He could be an accountant, or a marketing guru. He understood it all in a way that was unique and crucial to the saving of Fender. And, make no mistake, without Bill and his massive talent, we would not be here.”

My favorite moment came at one of our “bar closings” at a NAMM show. As multi-faceted as he was, Bill was a musician first. He had soul, and he could detect it—or the lack thereof—in others. We were talking about playing out, how we felt that making music was among the highest of callings, and how it was our duty to spread that word. It didn’t matter that he was a sax-playing, swing/jazz guy and I was all rocker—we were talking about music. I related to him the chills I get every time I think about performing, how I miss it, and so on. He jumped in, and told me about the last time he and a bunch of his pals—Fender marketing manager Ed Rizzuto and others—got together and played some tunes.

“We did Harry James, some Kenton—we went all night man,” he said. “That was one swingin’ session!”

Swingin’ session indeed, my friend. Swingin’ indeed.