Everything was all set for John and Kari Rihm’s retirement seven years ago. He was planning to sell Rihm Kenworth, a successful St. Paul, MN-based truck dealership, parts supplier and service shop that was founded by his grandfather in 1932.
They were still young, vital people; he 62, she 52. “We had a lake home we loved where we wanted to spend more time,” recalled Kari. “John loved to exercise, and I was ready to get more active physically. We planned to do a lot of volunteer work and to travel.”
Tragically, fate intervened.
John Rihm was diagnosed with brain cancer in June 2010. Four months later, he would be gone.
His devastated widow had little time to mourn, as the dealership’s future and its employees were now her responsibility. She’d had a 15-year career in marketing before becoming a stay-at-home mom to two children, so she understood the challenge.
She undertook it and succeeded brilliantly, adding dealerships, and now heads up Rihm Family Companies as well. In 2015, she won the Influential Woman In Trucking award.
Rihm recalled the pressure she felt in 2010, and how she went about taking over a business she knew little about.
“I was thrown into a leadership position where people were looking to me to safeguard their futures,” she said. “It continues to be something that I feel responsible for.
“I’ve adopted my husband and his father’s attitude that we don’t just employ people; we employ families. We’re responsible for their livelihoods. So the last thing I wanted to do was blindly take a step and fall off the cliff.”
She convinced herself that selling the business was not a logical option.
“What I innately knew was that I should not sell something I did not know the value of,” she said. “To me, the value wasn’t what is the bottom line and what I could get for it. The value was what was the potential, because there were dealers who wanted to buy it. They were calling me and saying so.”
Plus, she had the time to devote to it.
“After John passed, I was like, ‘Now what am I going to do with myself?’” she said. “My best friend was gone. The plans we’d made just disappeared. I needed a new purpose in life. Before it was raising a family. Now it was growing a business.”
Rihm first had to convince Kenworth corporate executives that she could manage the dealership. She did that. Next was going into overdrive learning the business. Done. Her son, John B., named for the founder, joined the company and now works directly with his mom. “We joke that his title is dealer principal in training,” said Kari. Her daughter, Libby, is a college student, thinking about becoming an attorney at the company.
Kari had to overcome not just being a novice in a tough business but also a woman. “I’ve found it to be a dichotomy, with some people supportive and some naysayers who have written me off,” she said. “But it’s a good industry, and women should consider it. The men need us for detail orientation. We’re better equipped to accept and develop millennials. Men and women have different brains and how they approach people. Women have an innate desire to nurture. We’re more flexible and willing to listen to younger people and how they want to live and work.”
Rihm’s plans for the company’s future include growth. “We have a small parts business I’d like to see grow. And we just acquired a truck leasing operation.”
Looking back on what’s happened since 2010 makes Kari Rihm proud. She recalled something that happened at her husband’s visitation that still reinforces her resolve.
“Several employees came to me and said, ‘Well, you come to work now.’ Right before John died we would talk. I think he had an inner sense that I would do the right thing. My age is 60 now, the Year of the Rooster, so it’s my time to crow.”