Writer / Angela Cornell
Photographer / Kari Lipscomb
Back in the day, car dealerships were one of those places where people gathered. Locals might stop in and have a cup of coffee with the owner and catch up on all the latest news. Although it’s typical for car dealerships to keep a warm pot of coffee, it’s usually the customers who pour themselves a cup before returning to their smartphones as they wait for the shop to finish. Kerlin Motor Company, which has been a family operation for 95 years, services many coffee drinkers on a regular basis. They’re such a fixture in the community that people still come in and chat with the owners and staff.
Russell Kerlin and his wife Pearl first purchased the motor dealership in 1927. Through the years their four sons, Arthur “Dean,” Kenneth, Ed and Ted, took turns owning it, and then their grandson, Rick Kerlin, took over the business in the 1990s along with his sister, Valerie Warner. Both have fond memories of growing up around the dealership.
“It was interesting and fun,” Rick says. “I would head down there, hang around and enjoy everything that was going on there. I wanted to be part of the business when I grew up.”
Valerie always appreciated the office side of things – a job that she eventually took over.
“Mom would let me, once in a while, walk down to the dealership because it was two blocks from the school, and just hang out with grandpa, dad and the bookkeeper,” she says. “I would just go in the office and just sit, listen and watch, then my mom would come by and pick me up. That was my treat, to be with them all.”
One of the biggest draws for both siblings is the people that they work with. “We have great employees who we like to be around and spend time with,” Rick says. “We have great clients – a customer base. We end up being friends with a lot of them. It’s not just the business side of it. It’s more the people side of it.”
For the Kerlin siblings, their business means more than just work. It’s a three-generation legacy, and a platform from which to give back to the community by building relationships based on respect, courtesy and trust with every customer who walks through the door.
“We work hard to gain the trust and respect from our customers that they’ve always had, from grandpa through dad and his brothers,” Valerie says. “To me that’s the best part, knowing that we are fulfilling the legacy that has been laid out, and knowing how grandpa and our dad wanted the business run and wanted customers treated.”
They are also heavily involved in their community, offering a community breakfast every Christmas and running an annual coat drive every fall since 1999. Since the first year they offered the coat drive, they have collected and given away 25,281 coats in the local area, and donated $250,000 to charitable organizations including Riley Hospital for Children and the American Diabetes Association.
Their success in continuing that legacy is evident in the customer-centric business practices, and the proof lies in the fact that some people have been loyal customers since their grandfather owned the business. The rest of the evidence lies in the number of awards they have gotten over the years, including the President’s Award from Ford five times over. “We’ve won it two times in a row now,” Rick says. “Less than 10% of the dealers receive that award. It’s a customer service award, so we’re really proud of that. We’ve won more customer service awards than any dealer around.”
The Kerlins eventually added onto the business with tractors, selling both vehicles and tractors out of the same location. Then in 1949, the family built a new facility for the car side of the business. Rick and Valerie’s father Ted worked in the tractor facility, which was only three blocks from where they lived growing up, until it moved to its current location on State Road 15 in Silver Lake.
They also have an award-winning service department with factory-certified technicians overseen by Parts and Services Director Kevin Kersey, who has been on the Kerlin team for 34 years. Parts Manager Dan O’Hara is also a longtime employee and has been with them for 22 years.
“We’re very low key,” Rick says. “We’re there to serve our customers. Our people are just great. They take pride in what they do.”
Valerie concurs. “We’ve had people come in and say that it’s the amount of respect that they get that sets us apart,” she says.
Their inventory includes Ford cars, Mahindra tractors, and Grasshopper and Ferris zero-turn mowers. These include residential and commercial. They also sell CFMOTO ATVs and UTVs. They also have a variety of agricultural trailers, including livestock, cargo, and utility. “The majority is horse and livestock trailers,” Rick says. “That’s our biggest seller. They’re basically an RV that holds horses. People go to a horse show or go trail riding, and the trailers are fully self-contained.”
The tractor side of the business also has several longtime employees including Robin Shepherd, who has been the parts and service advisor for 30 years, and Doug Presson, who has been the senior mechanic for 22 years.
Rick enjoys helping a customer find the perfect car, trailer or tractor. “For most people, it’s probably the second-largest purchase they’ll make outside of their house,” he says. “We try to make it very easy, transparent and fun. I tell the sales staff all the time, ‘If somebody is going to buy a new car, you should make it a fun experience for them.’ This is a happy time for them.”
Kerlin Motor Company is located at 9944 South State Road 15 in Silver Lake. Visit them online at kerlinmotors.com or call the service department at 260-352-2162.
Kerlin Tractor & Motorsports is located at 9910 South State Road 15 in Silver Lake. To reach them, go to kerlintractors.com or call 260-352-2490.
Kerlin Trailers is located at 9908 South State Road 15 in Silver Lake. Call them at 260-352-2295 or visit kerlintrailers.com.