Growth after loss: How a tragedy led to the transformation of Rihm Kenworth

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Updated Sep 23, 2022
Rihm Kenworth store front
Rihm Kenworth is headquartered in South St. Paul, Minn., and operates seven new truck dealerships. Its parent company Rihm Family Companies has more than 20 facilities, including its leasing, parts and service locations.

There aren’t many truck dealers like Rihm Kenworth. A fourth-generation family business, Rihm Family Companies has supported the transportation industry for nearly a century and has represented the Kenworth brand since 1949 — making it the second oldest continually operating Kenworth dealer in the world.

But to know Rihm Kenworth is to know not only its longstanding relationship with Kenworth, but also its uniqueness among its peers across the commercial truck dealer landscape.

Rihm Kenworth is a rarity. A company that experienced terrible tragedy and grew in its wake. A business celebrating its 90th anniversary that had never intended to last so long. And as one of trucking’s few woman-led dealer operations, an example of how diversity in the trucking industry can stimulate prosperity.

The Rihm Kenworth story began in 1932 but it is the last 12 years that have defined how the company evolved into what it is today, says President and CEO Kari Rihm. For it was 12 years ago that Rihm’s husband John passed away and the family’s exit plan — to sell the dealer business at John’s retirement — was upended.

Forced into a terrible situation, the Rihms were faced with a difficult choice. Kari Rihm says she remembers the pressure she felt to sell. But it was also in that tragic haze that her family saw an opportunity. Rihm Kenworth wasn’t on the market yet, and without a leader in place, its value had slipped.

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So, Kari entered the business. Her children J.B. and Libby followed, and together the Rihm family and company’s management team threw themselves into strengthening the organization. Rihm Kenworth would not go quietly.

It hasn’t.

Under Kari Rihm’s leadership, the company rebounded quickly, adding its fourth location in 2011 and additional facilities in 2017, 2018 and 2020. Nine more leasing locations were added through an acquisition in 2017, which led to the creation of the parent company Rihm Family Companies.

Today, the family’s business is nearly three times as large as it was in 2010, with seven new truck dealerships and more than 20 total storefronts. For her continued leadership excellence, Kari Rihm was named the winner of the 2022 ATD Truck Dealer of the Year Award in March. And this year, for the first time, Rihm Kenworth has been named a finalist for the Successful Dealer Award.

“I think our pragmatic approach to the business has been unexpected by many people. I think peers and competitors have been amazed and challenged by what we’ve done over the last 12 years,” says Kari Rihm. “We’ve been bold; we’ve stood out and taken risks and we’ve been able to reinvigorate this business.”

Today, the company’s value proposition of “Partnering for Success: Providing Expert Solutions for the Transportation Industry” serves as its North Star to drive the company forward. Coupled with four core values (Effective, Efficient, Equity and Expansion, also known as Rihm’s “Es of Doing Business”), the company has become one of the most aggressive and progressive dealers within the Kenworth network.

Original Rihm Motor Company buildingRihm Family Companies was founded as Rihm Motor Company and signed on as a Kenworth dealer in 1949.

Beyond expanding its AOR, Rihm Kenworth has one of the largest export businesses in the dealer channel. The company has sold parts to more than 60 countries and is often called upon by Kenworth and Paccar Parts to support the brands’ overseas truck owners, says J.B. Rihm, chief operating officer.

“We were one of the first dealers in North America to have a website — maybe even before some OEMs — we’ve been selling parts internationally for decades,” he says. “Often when Kenworth sells into a country where they don’t have parts support, they will introduce us to the customer so we can service them.”

And Rihm’s customer service is just as impressive domestically. J.B. Rihm says the company has developed processes and procedures for many common dealer functions and customer interactions and the company’s culture of autonomy and accountability motivates employees to devise solutions to meet any unusual customer need.

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“We have customers who will say, ‘It’s worth it to drive a little bit farther to your store because of the way your people treat me,’” Kari Rihm says. “That’s what we want. We want customers to tell others ‘Go there, they will treat you right.’”

Rihm Kenworth also invests substantial time and resources supporting its communities through business associations, charitable organizations and workforce development. Kari Rihm is an outspoken supporter of diversity and inclusion in the trucking industry. She hopes her and the company’s success can serve as a motivator for others introduced to the industry.

Referencing her recent accolades, she says, “If there is a way for women to see that women can succeed in positions in this industry that are not receptionists or accounts payable — that would mean a lot.”

The 2022 Successful Dealer Award is sponsored by Automann, Interstate Billing, Karmak, National Truck Protection and Premium 2000. The 2022 Successful Dealer Award will be presented in October at a private awards banquet in Nashville.

Rihm Kenworth Young Women Leadership ProgramRihm Kenworth is one of few woman-owned truck dealer businesses. President and CEO Kari Rihm was named the Most Influential Woman in Trucking by the Women in Trucking in 2015, and the company runs a Young Women Leadership Program to promote career opportunities for its female workforce.

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