[Source: INEDA, 05.2016 | Keywords: Dealership, Family, Multi-Generational]
noun | fam·i·ly | \ˈfam-lē, ˈfa-mə-lē \
A group of related people, including people who lived in the past
The ag industry is rich with family heritage and traditions. From century old farmsteads owned and operated by one family, to manufacturers such as Vermeer carrying on the family legacy, you donít have to look far to discover family connections.
Family connections are commonplace in equipment dealerships, with many multi-generational dealerships operating today. Hereís a look at three family-run dealerships with a combined 351 years in business.
Grosshans Inc. | Central City & Aurora, NE
Grosshans Inc. is the oldest family-owned farm equipment dealership in Iowa and Nebraska, and the oldest CaseIH Dealer in the United States. Founded in 1877 by Johannes Grosshans, the dealership got its start selling plows, binders, hardware and lumber.
Johannes first moved from Germany to Russia to get away from the Czar before bringing his family to America in 1877 to open equipment stores near Stockham and Sutton, Nebraska. When the rail line serving Stockham was abandoned in 1938, the dealership moved to Aurora, Nebraska.
The business was later passed on to August Grosshans I and eventually August Grosshans II, who was a close personal friend of Cyrus McCormick. “When my great grandfather died, the McCormick family sent a large wreath with the IH symbol on it,” said Kent Grosshans.
Paul Grosshans became president of the dealership in 1972, taking over when his father, Victor, retired. The dealership originally started out selling McCormick-Deering and later transitioned to International Harvester (now Case IH). At its peak, Grosshans operated seven stores. Today there are two, about 20 miles apart in Aurora and Central City.
At one time, the dealership’s Plattsmouth, Nebraska location had an attached sale barn. The horses and mules the Grosshans swapped for tractors at all of their locations were shipped to Plattsmouth and sold to buyers from the south. Back then, carrying the International Harvester brand also meant selling more than just farm equipment. The dealership also sold International Harvester window air conditioners and refrigerators.
Kent (the 6th generation) joined his father, Paul, at the dealership in 1977. “I had the pleasure of working alongside my father for 32 years,” reflected Kent, who has worked in every department, starting with cleaning latrines all the way up to his current position of business operations manager/president.
His wife, Jeanne, started working at the dealership three years ago. “She’s involved in a little bit of everything so if something happened to me, she could step in and take over the business,” explained Kent.
Kent’s son, Elliot (the 7th generation), joined the dealership in February. “My son will wear many hats, from working sales to learning how to do every function of the business. I want him to be well versed and able to do everything in the dealership,” said Kent. Even though Elliot always wanted to work in the dealership, Kent encouraged him to go to college first. “I felt that was important.”
The dealership has several long-term employees, most working at Grosshans for more than 20 years. “As of March 1st, our employees had 375 combined years of experience at our Central City location,” exclaimed Kent. “One advantage of having a family-run business is that you are more attuned to your employees. We work hard to take care of them.” One long-term employee recently retired after 60 years at the dealership.
“We’ve always been highly involved in our businesses,” said Kent. “You have to be to endure for such a long period of time. We’ve had hands-on family members and aren’t a big company with a lot of branches.”
Grosshans also prides itself on having no outside investors. “We are in the top ten of family-owned businesses in the United States in terms of longevity and are the oldest family-owned business to not change hands or be sold,” said Kent.
“My dad taught me that we have to make money to stay in business. I feel that is why we have survived. We recognize that we have to make money in order to take care of our customers.” – Kent
He is continually amazed when he thinks about the history his family members have witnessed. “From trading horses and the first tractors, to larger HP tractors and combines and the technological changes of today, it’s simply unbelievable.”
Kent feels that technology is getting ahead of some customers, making it hard for them and dealers to keep up. “Things have become so complicated that it’s become harder for people to utilize,” said Kent, who hopes to see improvements in training and education down the road.
“I think the reason why we have survived as long as we have is because we have skin in the game,” reflected Kent. “A lot of businesses don’t have much skin in the game, they are store managers.”
He concluded, “We have a vested interest in the business. Our family has always been business-minded and driven to succeed. I see that continuing for many years to come.”
H.D. Cline Co. | West Liberty, IA
During the great depression, E.E. Cline moved from Missouri to Washington, Iowa to run an International Harvester company store. In 1934, he left the company store and moved to Iowa City to open up a dealership. In 1937, E.E. opened a second dealership in West Liberty, Iowa which his son, H.D., managed. When H.D. eventually bought in, the dealership was renamed H.D. Cline Co. in 1950.
Times were tough during the 50s. “When I got out of the service in 1955, I came back home and got married,” said Bill Cline, H.D.’s son. “I remember visiting with my father (H.D.) about money and working with him at the dealership. He told me if I could find something that would pay more money to go for it. So, I drove a truck instead.”
When H.D. passed away in 1959, Bill took over managing the dealership. His brother, Bob, joined him as a partner for several years, but sold out in the 70s.
Today, H.D. Cline Co. is owned and operated by Bill and his son, Mike. “I’ve been here all of my life and have worked in every facet of the dealership,” said Mike, who started working full-time as a technician in 1975. “I’ve worked on everything from the pencil sharpener to combines,” he joked. Mike partnered with his dad in 1991 and today serves as the service manager, where he oversees the service and parts departments.
Bill’s daughter, Fay, currently handles the accounting and his wife, Kay, helps with bookwork. “Growing up, I helped mom off and on in the office,” recalled Fay. “I also remember helping with data input in 1976 when they started putting computers in at the dealership.” Fay continued in this role until the mid-80s, coming back full-time in 1992.
Fay’s son, Brent, joined the dealership as sales manager in 2007. He came back after attending college and working for a bit as a sales manager at Sears. “As technology advanced, I really began to enjoy it,” said Brent. “One day, Uncle Mike asked me if I would be interested in working at the dealership to help with guidance precision farming. I’ve been here ever since.”
“And as long as farmers continue to grow, we plan to grow along with them.” – Brent
Family members recall that the dealership seemed to experience big changes each time another generation joined the dealership. “In the early years, we traded horses,” reflected Brent. “Two-wheel drive tractors came along when Grandpa Bill was at the helm and when Mike came along, we saw the innovation of larger HP tractors and combines. When I joined the dealership, technological advances such as auto guidance were at the forefront.”
All agree that working with family members has its benefits. “One benefit of working with family members is that we can be more open, honest and direct with one another,” said Brent. “We understand each other and the experience each family member brings to the dealership. We all recognize how the business has grown and will continue to grow over the years.”
In addition, most of the employees have worked at the dealership more than 10 years. “It’s like one big extended family,” said Mike, who added that several employees are related to former employees and customers.
He credits the dealership’s success with being honest and treating customers with respect. “My father taught me that as long as you work closely alongside someone and treat them as you want to be treated, they will in turn, treat you with respect,” explained Mike.
Fay added, “I remember as a small child when farmers would knock on the door on a Friday night or Sunday morning to see if dad was home and could get a part from the dealership. I don’t recall him ever complaining. He would simply go and get what the customer needed.” Today the dealership runs a 24-hour cell phone service for its customers. “They appreciate that,” added Fay.
“We plan to continue offering great service for our customers and maintain a strong presence in our community for many years to come,” concluded Brent.
Bill, who is now close to retirement, agrees. “I know the dealership will be left in good hands when I retire and will continue to be in the family for many years to come.”
Pankonin’s Inc. | Louisville, NE
Today, Paul Pankonin (the 5th generation) runs the dealership with his dad, David. David (Elwood’s son), was in his final semester for a master’s degree at Northwestern University when his dad’s unexpected death thrust him into the business in 1975 when he was just 23 years old. Paul came back to the business 11 years ago when his dad was elected to the state legislature and served as an interim bank president. David returned to the dealership full-time about one year ago.
Paul always had an interest in working at the dealership. “I grew up spending time in high school and summers in college working at the dealership and always wanted to join the family business,” reflected Paul. “My dad required me to do something else after I graduated from college, so I spent 3.5 years as a loan officer in banking. It was a valuable learning experience.”
He enjoys working with his dad. “We have a very good relationship and really enjoy each other,” said Paul. “It’s nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of when an issue comes up. He’s a great source of wisdom.”
Paul added, “I understand and appreciate what my dad has done and the historical perspective he brings to the business. In turn, my father respects my opinions, even if we see things differently because ultimately, we are working toward the same goal. Sometimes I think it’s hard for families to talk about things like finances, succession and dynamics. Fortunately,
we’ve always had real open communication and trust so we can talk about anything.”
According to Paul, core financial principles have remained the foundation of Pankonin’s over the years. “Every generation of Pankonin has been financially geared and focused on having a solid financial base and managing our debt level.”
Over the years, the dealership has focused on inventory management and turning new and used equipment. “We tend to make decisions about ordering inventory by making a list of customers who might be interested and working our way down the list,” said Paul. “We do a good job of prospecting and know the machine fleet in our area. We only stock items that we have a good chance of selling.”
The dealership is currently in a great position with inventory. “Since my dad went through the farm crisis in the 80s he knew to prepare for when things would cycle down again. It’s due to his experience that we are financially in a good position today,” said Paul.
“Grandpa Elwood always focused on the parts and service business,” added Paul. “He was a one price guy. It was a fair price, and he developed a good reputation of fair dealing and support on that side. We’ve always followed his core financial principles.”
The dealership has continued this tradition of focusing on parts and service business while maintaining a high absorption rate. “We work at selling parts and service and ask for the business,” stressed Paul. “Whenever we see customers in the store we check on their parts and service needs.” The dealership also offers a reconditioning program during the off-season.
“We look at customers and operations in the area and know what is out there for equipment. There’s a good fleet of older equipment out there and they are some of our best parts and service customers,” added Paul.
Another thing the dealership strives to do is have a realistic financial perspective on equipment. “We strive to understand
what equipment is really worth, especially as used equipment has gotten bigger, more technical and more expensive. We are not afraid to walk away from a bad deal,” said Paul.
“When my grandfather Elwood expanded in our area after World War II, there were probably seven IH dealers and several other dealers/brands in our county. Today, we are the only full-line dealer of any brand in Cass and Sarpy Counties,” said
Pankonin’s Inc. will continue to build on the lessons and wisdom of the past, while adapting to an ever changing business world.