You're fired! Again!

Of the many legends surrounding Mercury Marine and its founder Carl Kiekhaefer, perhaps the greatest was a story that grew from legend to lore, quickly spreading through Fond du Lac and sweeping across the marine industry and beyond. The story was told so many times that it appeared in such publications as Reader’s Digest and Boy’s Life.

There are as many versions of the story as there are tellers, but the most popular is remembered as the “Coca-Cola driver” story. As it’s told, Kiekhaefer noticed a young man sitting idly on a crate of soft drinks. He asked the young man how much he was being paid each week, and when the driver responded “A hundred bucks,” the boss pulled a wad of cash from his pocket and peeled off five $20 bills, admonishing the slacker to “get out and don’t come back.”

Kiekhaefer never owned up to that story, but at least two local delivery drivers were fired by him as documented in the book The Legend of Mercury Marine by Jeffrey L. Rodengen. Ted Karls, who drove for Anchorage Transfer and Storage but was fired and issued a check by Kiekhaefer, told the author “Every time somebody would go out there, they’d just stand around and wait for him to come and fire them.”

Equally as legendary as Kiekhaefer’s firings — his seemingly emotional expressions of his frustration at any given moment — were his “rehirings,” when he would call the next day and ask why they weren’t at work. A young Bobby Allison, then working for Kiekhaefer’s NASCAR team in Charlotte, NC, told an interviewer in jest, “There must have been 20 guys who got fired while I was working there. His favorite saying was ‘You’re fired, but you can’t leave until the car is ready,’” Allison said.

Reinstated employees might have received a new company car or a cash bonus, but rarely an apology. Ironically, less frequently told are the stories of Kiekhaefer having the company plane fly the wife of an employee to the Mayo Clinic for treatment or of his support for community projects and organizations.

"Pulls an elephant, runs on peanuts"

The headline topped an ad introducing the new Mercury 90, with a photo of an elephant skating along on water skis. When skeptics cried fraud, Carl Kiekhaefer vowed to recreate the spectacle in front of 130 journalists at the company’s annual press meeting.

Trouble was, the elephant from the ad was on a circus tour, and newly hired publicity man Clem Koehler faced the challenge of finding another water-skiing elephant.

With that mission accomplished, Koehler contacted Florida-based water ski instructor Jim Rusing, who set up the ad shoot to repeat the feat. The “skis” — a pair of boat pontoons — were designed for a 3,000-pound elephant. “Queenie” arrived weighing 5,000 pounds. With coaxing, Queenie took to the skis, becoming the star of an on-water extravaganza, followed by food, music and fireworks.

Queenie had a long career as a performer and died in June of 2011 at the age of 59.

Clem Koehler (Mercury years: 1962 – 1997)

Clem Koehler observed some of the most successful, most legendary and most bizarre stunts in the history of the marine industry during his 35 years in Mercury Marine’s public relations department.

According to Koehler, Mercury founder Carl Kiekhaefer was more than just a brilliant engineer. “He had a real nose for publicity,” Koehler said. “We had no real advertising budget. He understood the concept of ‘free’ publicity. And the more outrageous the idea, the more he seemed to like it.”

The purchase of Mercury by Brunswick Corporation and Kiekhaefer’s eventual resignation made Mercury “A more stable place to work,” he said, a sentiment based, perhaps, on being a victim of Kiekhaefer’s legendary firings. Not once, but twice.

“I was told not to have any more personal possessions at the office than could fit in a shoe box,” he said. Koehler was “rehired” both times.Koehler,80,retired to Illinois in 1997 and went on to publish two mystery novels, Profiles and Mind Games.