Bill Schultz, the savior of the legendary Fender Musical Instrument Co., died Thursday at his home in Scottsdale. Schultz, 80, still chairman of the company he resuscitated after years of corporate mishandling, succumbed to a 17-year battle with cancer.
“There were lots of tears around here,” said Fender spokesman Morgan Ringwald. “A lot of people loved that man. He was a respected business man and a beloved figure in music. To his family, he was just Bill, dad, grandpa. We were his other family. He was friend, mentor, inspiration to so many.”
Schultz embodied the usually mutually exclusive characteristics of being a nice guy — “Even competitors loved Bill,” Ringwald said — and a corporate turnaround master.
Fender, the guitar maker for generations of musicians from Buddy Holly to John Mayer, was founded in 1945 by Leo Fender in his radio shop.
Schultz led an employee buyout of the company in 1985, when then-owner CBS had let the legendary guitar business languish. He piloted the company from a $12 million operation in 1985 to an estimated $500 million giant in the 20 years since.
He did it by filling the top slots with music makers and music lovers who understand the industry from the inside out.
“We’re not MBAs, we’re musicians,” Schultz, a clarinet and tenor sax player, said in 2000.
“This is a passionate business from manufacturer to performer. It exudes passion at all levels. I’ve seen too many companies in the music business bring in MBAs with Fortune 500 strategies and go down the tubes. We’re just a bunch of guys that love the business.”
Schultz, worried about California tax laws unfavorable to manufacturing, moved his company to Scottsdale in 1991. The laws changed before Schultz uprooted the factory, so he left the actual guitar manufacturing behind.
But by that time, the office staff had established roots in Scottsdale, discovered the golf courses and breathed in the relatively smog-free climate, so he decided to stay.
Schultz is survived by his wife of 61 years, Mary Jane Schultz, his children Kathi Knop, Karen Thomas and her husband Ralph Thomas, his grandchildren Christopher Knop, Jeffrey Thomas and his wife Melissa, Marianne Thomas, Natalie Thomas, Julie Thomas and Meredith Thomas, and his two greatgrandchildren, Kate and Emily Thomas.
The Schultz family will hold a private memorial service in the coming days for immediate family only. They have requested that flowers not be sent. In lieu of flowers, the Schultz family said they will be providing a list of charities that pay respect to their patriarch’s life.
Ringwald said Fender has been working on a Hall of Fame project for some time, but it’s too soon to say if the company will mark Schultz’s contribution to its huge success in other ways as well.