When Bill Keyes graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 1972, sure, he had a job waiting for him at his father’s auto dealership in Boyceville.

He also had the weight of the business’s survival on his shoulders.

Keyes Chevrolet celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2016, and for this milestone, the Keyes family credits an ability to dig in and find ways to survive when challenges arise and economic cycles shift into low gear.

The family’s entrepreneurial legacy started when Bill’s father, Bill Keyes, Sr., opened a gas station in Knapp. He eventually also sold farm machinery. In 1945, he began building a dealership in Boyceville, so he could enter the auto sales world. He didn’t receive his first new car until one year later, as the auto plants had previously been busy building equipment for World War II.

Bill, Jr. grew up at the dealership, often working alongside his father. When his dad suffered a massive heart attack shortly after Bill’s college graduation, the younger Keyes assumed oversight of the day-to-day operations while his father recovered.

“I wasn’t even sure at that time that was exactly what I wanted to do, but if I hadn’t, the dealership would have ceased to exist,” says Bill.

Menomonie beckons

His dad passed away in 1985. Seeing potential for growth by moving to a larger city, Bill and his wife, Joy, relocated the business to Menomonie in 1988, where it is strictly an auto dealership today.

Bill’s son Joe says the dealership has established itself as a well-known name in the community and across the Chippewa Valley because they love the business of selling cars. “It’s a people business — the cars are just the bonus,” he says. “Our excitement for what we do transfers to the customer.”

Joe is dealer and general manager and his sister, Kami, is office manager. Five family members currently work at the dealership, including Kami’s husband, Adam, and Joe’s sister-in-law, Anna. Keyes Chevrolet employs a total of about 40 people. Several long-time employees have been on staff since Joe and Kami were kids.

“I’m working now with people who saw me grow up,” says Kami. “The dealership was right across from the school in Boyceville, so we’d run over there when school was over … that’s one of my fondest memories as a kid. Spending all day together now, I feel everyone here is like my second family.”

These close ties made employee retention Joe’s top priority when the Great Recession hit. “I was able to keep all the full-time people on staff,” he says. “That was most important to me.” Most of the leadership team at Keyes has worked there for more than 20 years.

The dealership is one of GM’s top performers, says Joe, with GM awarding it their “Mark of Excellence” honor several years in a row. “This award is reserved for the top seven percent of the dealer body in sales and customer satisfaction,” he says. “These awards are a direct reflection of the team at Keyes.”

Navigating a recession

Despite efforts like “Cash for Clunkers” and other government loan incentives, the 2008 recession devastated dealerships across the state. “It was a tough time, especially for a lot of GM dealerships,” recalls Bill, who is no stranger to tough times for the car trade.

“I figured if we could survive the gas shortages and double-digit interest rates of the ‘70s, we could survive anything,” says Bill. “And that was about the time my dad suffered his heart attack. It was a terrible time with about 700 dealerships closing in Wisconsin, but we made it by hard work and faith.”

Joe says Keyes Chevrolet endured the government bailout of GM and the loss of the Oldsmobile line with the same attitude. “We kept a positive attitude and just stayed patient,” says Joe, who adds that the dealership didn’t see a huge dip in sales. “The scary thing for us was we were just three years into our new facility, which was a large investment.”

Keyes Chevrolet moved into a building that increased its square footage from 13,500 to 45,000 in 2005, when they completely remodeled building space formerly occupied by Kmart and Marketplace grocery.

“Obviously we were disappointed to not see the immediate sales growth we had hoped for with the expansion, but we came out of the recession a stronger company,” says Joe. Keyes Chevrolet is the largest auto dealership in Dunn County.

They weathered the recession by keeping a tight rein on inventory, which was not an easy task after having just tripled its square-footage.

“We became less aggressive, really watching where we spent our money,” Joe says. “Lesson learned from the downturn is to not over-invest in inventory or wild, new things a dealership doesn’t need.”

Keyes Chevrolet does appeal to the wild side of some potential customers, however, featuring Corvettes and Camaros on the showroom floor.

“Dad’s been selling Camaros and Corvettes since the Boyceville days,” says Joe. “We have a showroom full of Camaros, Corvettes, and collector cars — something for the enthusiasts. With the new facility, we wanted to make this place a destination, a fun place where people make a point of stopping when in the area.”

‘Transparent atmosphere’

To create a welcoming atmosphere, Keyes Chevrolet designed the facility with openness in mind. “Our salespeople don’t have desks, there are only round tables throughout the showroom, and all the offices are surrounded with glass, so we have a very transparent atmosphere,” Joe says. “We’re here to build a relationship with a customer on both the sales and service side of the business. Our motto is: ‘A car is replaceable, a customer is not.’”

The core customer base for Keyes Chevrolet lives within a 45-mile radius, but the internet occasionally makes that map obsolete. “We have people often willing to drive from the Cities once they see a vehicle we have on our website,” says Joe. “We even have customers fly in from across the country, take the shuttle from the airport, check into a hotel, and drive their new car home.”

The internet makes for a car customer far more empowered with information than in his dad’s day. “It makes our jobs easier, because more customers know what they’re looking for,” says Joe. “If they’re in the used market, they can pull a history report from our website for every used vehicle we have.”

Unlike his father’s and grandfather’s time when deals were made on a handshake and a simple “sign on the bottom line,” the closing process is much more detailed for Joe and his staff. Privacy and consumer protection laws have added to the process.

But on the plus side of all the new rules is the one allowing dealerships to assume more of a financing role, says Joe. “We’re a one-stop shop now for customers who don’t want to finance through the bank, saving them and us time.”

Customer loyalty

The family atmosphere among the staff extends to the customer. “Joe and I always talk about how great it is when we get to talk with customers who purchased from my dad or our grandfather,” says Kami. “We appreciate them as part of the Keyes family. It’s really a blessing to be so connected to the community this way.”

As the third generation to welcome people walking through the front door, Joe agrees it is exciting to meet third-generation buyers, and sometimes get to connect with a first. “I have a customer who came in with receipts from his grandpa, a farmer, who purchased farm machinery from my grandpa,” Joe says.

Bill, who still spends time in the showroom, says repeat business is crucial. One of his customers was the pinnacle of customer loyalty. “When we were still in Boyceville a guy came in with a list he kept folded up in his wallet,” Bill says. “I remembered I had sold him my first new vehicle when I was just starting out. On this list were the names of 37 vehicles he had purchased from us over the years.

“Being low-key and family-oriented has really helped us retain customers for years.”

Passing it down

Succession businesses are known for their own set of challenges. As Bill puts it, “The old saying goes about the car business: the first generation builds it, the second generation grows it, and the third generation loses it. Thankfully that is far from the case with us.”

Successful succession usually relies on strong family ties, patient teachers and willing learners. Bill exemplified that by his ability to run his dad’s businesses when his dad fell ill. Bill’s kids are now prepping generation four.

Joe, 39, who started washing cars for his dad in fifth grade, and his wife Kate have three kids who each have their own name tags at the store. Kami, whose younger self went from detailing cars to serving as receptionist, now has a 6-year-old daughter already determined to “do what mom does” when she grows up.

Kami says Joe and she make a good team. “We seem to be compatible and work off each other’s strengths. I’m more of a behind-the-scenes person, comfortable with running the office, while he’s out there representing the business to the public.”

In addition to learning the business from his father, Joe — who had his sales license at age 18 — completed training at the National Auto Dealers Association Academy in McClean, Virginia shortly after graduating college. “We received training in every facet of running a dealership, every department — sales, service, parts,” says Joe. “It helped tremendously to see what strategies were working well at other dealerships across the country.”

As both are graduates of Menomonie High School, Joe and Kami continue to show their Menomonie pride by sponsoring several programs at the school. Keyes Chevrolet also supports many other community organizations and non-profit organizations.

Keeping Keyes Chevrolet strong for the fourth generation depends on a number of factors, says Joe. “It’s about creating the right culture, having the right inventory, and being at the forefront of what customers want,” he says. “And it helps being a full-line Chevrolet dealer.”

His father, Bill, reflects on the dealership’s 70-year history by remembering the hard work his dad dedicated in taking the business from a gas station in Knapp to a licensed GM dealer in Boyceville, and the growth they’ve enjoyed since moving to Menomonie.

“My dad would be proud to see what it’s developed into and that we have a third generation running the business. Our son and daughter work together so well and that’s what I enjoy seeing the most. I think my dad would be most proud of that, too.”

Judith Munson of Eleva is a freelance writer and owner of Write Now Media. She can be contacted at jmunson.wnm@gmail.com

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