Mankato Magazine: Q & A with Kip Lager (2023)

Kip Lager knew at an early age how to put in a hard day’s work.

He delivered newspapers for the Star Tribune starting when he was 10 years old, and during the summer months he would help his father, Gerry, with the family’s dealership business in St. Peter. He remembers doing a lot of cleaning, painting, running errands, and mounting tires. The experience helped instill a strong work ethic.

“My dad would always find something that needed to be done and my brother and I would always have to work,” Lager said. “In the late 70’s, in St. Peter, we owned a gas station, an International Truck sales and service center, an alignment shop, and the dealership, so we had a lot of places to find special projects or assistance during the summer.”

Today Lager is the president of three family companies: Lager’s Chrysler World in Mankato, Lager’s Inc. Chrysler Dodge Jeep Pontiac Buick GMC in St. Peter and Lager’s Leasing Co., Inc.

Q: Tell me about the history of Lager’s Chrysler World.

A: My father worked for International Harvester Co. and was a regional man for southern Minnesota. He met my mom at a church function in New Prague. After they married they moved to Minneapolis where my brother and I were both born.

My mother had been running her own business in New Prague, Glory Ann’s Beauty Salon. My dad was transferred to Spokane, Wash. where we lived until I was 5. My mother didn’t want the family to be moved around by a corporation and wanted to be closer to her family.

My father and his brother Bill, who was living in St. Peter, decided to start a new business together. Lager’s Inc., a Chrysler Plymouth dealership in St. Peter, opened in 1965 on the corner of Highway 169 and Highway 99 East (current site of St. Peter Food Co-op). Our family moved to St. Peter just in time to enjoy the flood of 1965.

In 1969, a new dealership facility was opened at the current location at 910 Old North Minnesota Ave. In 1974, they started Lager’s Leasing Co., Inc., and in 1977, they started Lager’s of Mankato Chrysler Plymouth. In 1987 Lager’s Leasing Co., started U-Save Auto Rental of America franchise in Mankato and St. Peter.

This year marks the 30th anniversary for Lager’s Chrysler World in Mankato.

Q: How did you become involved in the business?

A: I was always involved in the business. When I graduated from college I lived in Minneapolis for a year working in the car business until I realized that I missed the opportunities that were available here. I had a lot of friends from high school, and I could play basketball and softball all the time, and also help my father.

Q: Are other family members involved in the business?

A: My mother started working at the dealership when I left for college, and during the early ‘80s business was very tough. When I started working at the dealership full time I started in sales. After I trained in at the National Auto Dealers Association Dealer Candidate Academy, I realized that I would be of most benefit to the dealership by working on the fixed operations — service, parts, car rental and my father ran the sales operations.

Q: What have you enjoyed most about working with family, and how has a family atmosphere in the office affected the rest of the company?

A: Most of the business owners in the car business start out in sales and that is their strength when it comes to running a dealership. My father always enjoyed sales and he really liked it when I ran the service and parts department because he did not have to deal with any problems that would arise in those areas of the business.

Cars break, people make mistakes, and people get upset. You deal with the manufacturer policies, technical assistance, and parts procurement issues which adds to the variables that we cannot control. In service you try to make it right and work within the system.

We worked like this until 1989 when my uncle passed away and my dad went back to St. Peter to run that store and I started running the Mankato store alone.

My mother retired in 1992 along with my father. I enjoyed seeing my parents every day when they were here and we worked very well together as we each had our area of operations to work in.

Q: What changes have evolved over the years with the business?

A: Things change all the time in the car business. At one point my father had to close nearly every deal on the show room floor as long time customers began to question whether Chrysler Corp. was going to make it as they lobbied for loan guarantees from the federal government to avoid bankruptcy. We went through a period where the auto manufacturers started buying dealerships and running them themselves which failed miserably.

Now we have public corporations owning dealership chains across the country and the number of actual dealership points is in decline through closure and consolidation. After merging Daimler and Chrysler in 1998 and forming DaimlerChrysler Corp the Daimler executives are selling 80.1% of their equity interest in Chrysler to Cerberus Capital Management a private equity firm.

This will bring great change and will affect all current DCX dealers. New ownership will bring many changes in management, marketing, philosophy, and policy. We welcome the change which should occur sometime this fall when the deal is closed. Chrysler will return to the status of being an American car company.

Q: In the age of large businesses, how important is the community in relation to family-owned businesses? How has the Mankato community affected your family business?

A: Many dealerships today are consolidating into chains and these dealerships are run by general managers who have little or no owner equity in the business. Some dealership chains move management people around from store to store.

In rural markets like Mankato and St. Peter it is more common to have an owner in the store every day and therefore you have someone who is connected to the community and someone to step in and make the call on customer issues on a daily basis. Our reputation in the community is very important to us and we strive to provide good service to our customers and deal openly and honestly on vehicle sales.

I enjoy living in this area and I am a good example of how friends and neighbors are willing to help in times of need. On August 24 last year the tornado in St. Peter tore some of the roof off of my house. My wife and two of my daughters were in the basement while my youngest daughter and I were in Canada visiting my father at his cabin. Friends and neighbors in St. Peter came out to my house and helped my wife Mary and our daughters clean up the mess and put a tarp on our roof.

The next day when I was returning home I was involved in a boat accident and spent a week in the hospital in Duluth. People helped with my children, cooked meals, drove to Duluth with my wife, etc. When I got out of the hospital I missed work for five months during which time my friends mowed my yard, moved our furniture in and out of the house, help drive our children to activities, etc.

My wife Mary was in the middle being the head coach of the St. Peter High School swimming team and I was not able to drive for two months or do much of anything during which time we had the tornado damage repaired. It was very stressfull watching it rain in your living room knowing I was not in any condition to do anything about it. I do not know how we would have made it through without the help of our friends and neighbors in the community.

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