Knauz of Lake Bluff celebrates 80 years serving customers on North Shore

The Golden Rule has always been the driving force at Knauz, a local automotive company celebrating its 80th anniversary this year.

CEO William Madden, who 14 years ago took over running the company started by his wife Kim’s grandparents in 1934, even had six-inch golden rulers made to distribute to all employees and new hires.

“I wanted something simple that reminds everybody every day that this is what we’re all about,” Madden said.

Treating others how you want to be treated extends to employees as well as customers. And it’s a lesson Madden practices himself.

The bow-tied CEO walks the 30-acre Knauz Auto Park, located at 407 Skokie Valley Highway in Lake Bluff since 2001, and its BMW, Hyundai, Land Rover and Mercedes-Benz “stores” daily, greeting every employee he meets on his rounds by name and reinforcing the company’s message.

“It’s only 300 names. Shame on me if I can’t remember them,” Madden said.

In an industry where other businesses have come and gone, Knauz remains a strong presence on the North Shore. Madden credits the company’s adherence to The Golden Rule as the “secret” to the company’s success.

“This is still a very personal business. It’s one car at a time, whether you’re selling it or you’re fixing it,” he said.

Treating others as you want to be treated is reinforced in weekly and monthly meetings with staff.

“It’s part of our heritage,” he said. “I just don’t know that it’s been a part of other companies’ cultures as it has been here from the beginning.”

The company was started in 1934 by Kim’s grandfather, Karl Knauz. He was a chauffeur for a wealthy family in Lake Forest. His wife was a cook. They both emigrated to the U.S. from Germany.

“In the depths of the Depression, they decided to risk their entire savings to open up a gas station and that’s how the company got started in 1934 on Western Avenue in Lake Forest,” Madden said.

The popular couple drew in business from all the estates and eventually expanded with auto sales. The first franchises were Chrysler, DeSoto and Plymouth, followed by Volvo, Alfa Romeo and Peugeot.

In 1959, Knauz became a Mercedes-Benz dealer and added Land Rover in 1961, until the company pulled out of the U.S. In 1971, BMW was added and Land Rover returned in 1985. Tapping into a new market, Madden added MINI Cooper in 2000 and Hyundai in 2009.

“I thought they would be a natural addition to our company. This way new customers can get started with us and learn about our capabilities,” Madden said.

In the last six months Knauz added a Sprinter franchise, a subsidiary of Mercedes-Benz that makes commercial vans.

While technology has taken the automotive world beyond the imaginings of Karl Knauz in 1934, the company’s steady adherence to The Golden Rule has not wavered — and appears to be working.

“In the service department in each one of our stores, we track retention. Our retention rate on cars we have sold is over 100 percent,” he said. “What that tells me is we are taking service business away from competitors. Even if they bought their vehicle someplace else, we’re servicing it.”

Reaching this milestone is something the company takes seriously.

“We’re very mindful and very humble about having been responsible for taking care of people and their cars for 80 years. It’s very important to us as a family,” he said.

To help celebrate eight decades in business, Knauz has been hosting concerts on Saturdays at the Auto Park.

“Come bring your picnic lunch and listen to the music,” Madden said.

The last of the five concerts is scheduled on Saturday, Sept. 20. From 10 a.m. to noon,102.3XLC will broadcast live from MINI, and from noon to 3 p.m., Flashback 45, an oldies band, will play hits from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

Save-A-Pet also will be on hand with adoptable dogs and cats. Refreshments will be available.

Anyone who has a specialty or classic cars is invited to display it in the parking lot during the concert.

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