Fourth-generation auto dealership owners plan more growth

This piece is presented by Prairie Family Business Association.

Ernest Patnoe’s motto in the 1930s was “We smile when you come, you smile when you leave.”

Three generations of the Patnoe family

Almost nine decades later, the family-owners of Liberty Superstores are still smiling, with a business that recently doubled in size and a long-tenured group of dedicated employees.

Liberty Superstores and the Patnoe family are the winners of this year’s Coca-Cola Excellence in Family Business Award, which will be presented Oct. 9 in Rapid City.

We caught up with Max, a fourth-generation owner, to learn more about their legacy of success.

Congratulations on your well-deserved honor. Liberty’s current motto is “simple, worry-free car buying.” How do you deliver that for your customers?

Our customers essentially developed the motto. We continually have customers make comments after finishing paperwork about their easy and straightforward experience. We treat everyone with respect and make sure our car-buying process is transparent to the customer. It is important that customers feel comfortable. That is what keeps them coming back time and time again.

The average tenure of your employees is an impressive eight years. What’s your approach to on-boarding new hires and your strategy for retention?

We are very fortunate to have such dedicated, loyal and long-term team members. A few years ago, Don and I started hosting new-hire orientation lunches once a month as part of our on-boarding process. We invite all new hires, so they can get to know us and we can get to know them on both a professional and personal level. This has helped us quickly create relationships with each new team member and encourages open communication throughout our organization.

As far as retention, I think it’s all about culture. We have a relaxed atmosphere, which creates a lighthearted environment for employees and customers. We also have a few social events each year, so that everyone can bond outside the dealerships. The quality people and fun atmosphere keep the team together.

In 2016, you acquired another family business – Dodge Town, which the Rypkema family had owned for more than 50 years. How do you think being a family business allowed you to help integrate this new addition?

Being a family business made the transition much more natural. The Rypkema family and our family share a common set of values: to treat people with respect and honesty. I think customers and employees appreciate that the business went to a local family and that the core values remained the same.

Transitioning through three or four generations is rare for family businesses. What’s your best advice for others trying to achieve it?

The Patnoe family’s original dealership

I believe the most important part of transitioning a family business is to have a well-thought-out, clearly communicated plan for both family and nonfamily members. The plan will change as you go, but it will at least keep everyone moving in the same direction. Our plans continue to evolve as we grow our business.

Additionally, it is important to separate business life from family life. This is difficult but important to enjoy both separately. Try and leave business discussions at the office and family discussions for around the dinner table.  Having some outside experience also helps. Education or career experience outside the family business gives you a much broader perspective.

Why have you become involved with the Prairie Family Business Association? What advantages have you found?

Our involvement with the Prairie Family Business Association has helped us to focus on a long-term transitional plan and allowed us to better lead our organization. Conversations about family business can be difficult and emotional. Having the support and guidance from the PFBA and other family businesses experiencing the same challenges makes these discussions much more approachable.

You recently joined an affinity peer group through the Prairie Family Business Association. How do you anticipate that helping you in your business?

The affinity peer group provides a great resource for collaborating with the next generation going through similar transitions in their own family businesses. It provides a wide perspective since we all come from different industries with different ideas to solve similar challenges. Dedicating a few hours to focus on big-picture topics with high-caliber individuals always gets me motivated. It’s energizing to meet with like-minded individuals, and I always come away with some great ideas to strengthen our organization.

What’s next for Liberty? Where do you see the business in five or 10 years?

Over the past couple years, we have been busy with dealership acquisitions and facility remodels. This spring, we will begin our last facility remodel at Liberty Mitsubishi Volkswagen. Farther down the road, we continue to look at new expansion opportunities around the area.

The Prairie Family Business Association is an outreach program of the USD Beacom School of Business.

Fourth-generation auto dealership owners plan more growth

After almost nine decades in business, Liberty Superstores is in its fourth generation of ownership and recently doubled in size.

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