SIOUX CITY — Like his father before him, Charlie Knoepfler never coerced his children to follow in his footsteps and take over the family’s Chevrolet dealership bearing their surname.
“I made a point of not pressuring them at all,” the 64-year-old former owner of Knoepfler Chevrolet said. “The only thing I ever said to them, one time, was, ‘If you want to take the opportunity and see how it goes, we’d sure enjoy having you in the firm.’”
Even without doing so directly, the elder Knoepfler inspired his sons, Ben and Joe, to want to be involved with the business.
“It’s all I knew; from a small child I loved being around cars,” Ben Knoepfler, 38, said. “I watched my hero, who is my dad, be in this business and I admired him, admired the way he dealt with people. He respected people and people respected him and I always thought that was a neat deal.”
Earlier this month, Charlie Knoepfler, who was a third generation owner, transferred the Chevrolet dealer’s license to Ben after holding the distinction for 28 of the 41 years he's worked there.
Ben and Joe Knoepfler, who is director of operations, represent the fourth generation of family ownership at Knoepfler Chevrolet.
This structural change also coincided with the dealership’s 95th anniversary. Reaching this milestone wasn't an easy feat, Charlie Knoepfler noted.
"We've gone through recessions, gas prices spiking, our manufacturer declaring bankruptcy a few years ago and so it's been interesting," he said. "We've withstood a lot of stuff thrown at us and we are grateful for that, of course, and you have to keep that in mind that there's no guarantees in business; some of that stuff can come out of right field at you and you don't don't see it until it's right there."
Knoepfler Chevrolet was founded in 1922 as Ryal Miller-Kidder Chevrolet Co. The business operated at several sites in downtown Sioux City before settling on the seven-acre lot at 100 Jackson St. it's called home since 1971.
The dealership was started when Duane Kidder — Ben and Joe Knoepfler’s great-great-uncle — partnered with Ryal Miller to form what Charlie Knoepfler thinks is the oldest continuous automotive dealership in Sioux City.
The first vehicle sold at the dealership was a 1922 Chevrolet Series 490, which was Chevy’s answer to rival Ford Motor Co.’s top-selling Model T. It went for a little less than $500, which inflates to almost $7,000 in 2017 dollars, according to DollarTimes.
Kidder’s nephew, Jim Knoepfler — Charlie’s father and Ben and Joe’s grandfather — joined the business in 1952 as a truck salesman.
Jim Knoepfler became president of the dealership in 1963 and two years later it was renamed Kipper-Knoepfler Chevrolet. Charlier Knoepfler signed on in 1976 and his younger brother, Bill, followed suit in 1982.
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“I had a tremendous opportunity that not many people would get and I’m very grateful for that because it’s been a successful business and has fed my family well,” Charlie Knoepfler said.
In 1979, the Kidder portion of the dealership’s name was dropped following the death of Duane Kidder, and it has operated as Knoepfler Chevrolet since.
Ben Knoepfler joined the dealership in an official capacity in 2007 after spending nearly a decade working at a Chevrolet dealership in the Twin Cities “cutting his teeth." He noted it’s remarkable that they’ve been able to keep the company in the family for as long as they have.
“We’ve been lucky that every generation there’s been family members who have been interested in it,” he said. “It’s a lot of work and it takes a lot of time and dedication and every generation there’s been somebody that’s wanted to take that on and ends up buying out the previous generation and away we go.”
Besides his admiration for his father, Ben Knoepfler wanted to be part of the business because of how much it means to him. He worked at the dealership in high school cleaning and detailing cars and gets nostalgic when thinking of even earlier memories that occurred there.
“I have a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old and they were in the other day running and playing in the cars and those are some of my earlier memories — playing in the cars on the show floor,” Ben Knoepfler said.
While it was never his stated goal to get his children to take his place, Charlie Knoepfler, who plans to stick around as an advisor of sorts, can’t help but be enthused that they did.
“I’m excited,” he said. “Again, it’s something I’m grateful for because not many people get to see their adult children every day and I have that opportunity."
With the leadership of the dealership set for the foreseeable future, Ben Knoepfler is already thinking of ways to drive the business forward for the next 95 years.
Coincidentally, most of his plans sound similar to the mantra he said Knoepfler Chevrolet has always tried to operate under: Give customers what they want and be receptive to change.
"My plan is to keep evolving with the customers," Ben Knoepfler said. "The thing we hear a lot about now is cars that will drive themselves, and so if/when that happens we want to be able to sell them.
"We are going to wherever the market and the customers take us."