In the depths of the Great Depression, Karl Knauz and his wife Emmy began working a “couples job” for a well-to-do Lake Forest family in the early 1930’s. Karl was the butler/chauffer and Emmy was the cook.
But Karl was a forward thinker, and an entrepreneur at heart. He took a chance and risked his entire life savings, and by 1934, he had opened a car service station on Western Avenue in Lake Forest.
From there, he joined forces with Chrysler and opened a DeSoto Plymouth dealer in 1935, then became a Chrysler franchise in 1940. Since then, Knauz Autopark has expanded to 30 sprawling acres in Lake Bluff at Route 41 and Rockland Road.
Karl and Emmy’s son Bill worked at the dealership throughout his childhood and began full-time in 1947. He left the business to serve in Korea for the U.S. Army from 1950-1952, but immediately came back after his duty was done.
Land Rover joined the growing inventory of cars in 1961, and though it left in the early 1970’s, the all-terrain vehicle came back in 1985, and Knauz is now #16 out of more than 200 Land Rover dealers across the U.S.
In 1971, BMW joined the expanding list of offerings, and to celebrate the 40th birthday selling the luxury car, Knauz took hundreds of its customers to see the movie Ghost Protocol. The movie featured the I8, a BMW model whose front wheels are driven electronically and back wheels by piston engine. That model is set to debut by 2014.
Chance Meeting Changes Future Course of Knauz
William Madden, the current president and CEO of Knauz, was a banker in the early 1980's and was in the market for an Alpha Romeo. A friend suggested he take a ride out to Knauz, who sold the sports car at that time.
Madden ended up meeting [then] Kim Knauz, Bill's daughter who worked in sales for the dealership. Kim ended up selling that Alpha Romeo to Madden, and the two were married the following year.
The Alpha Romeo sits today in the 10,000 sq. ft. classic car center adjacent to the Knauz Autopark corporate offices, and is sentimentally referred to as “The Wedding Car.”
“Bill often joked, quipping ‘little did you know how much that car was really going to cost you,’” Madden said.
When Bill asked Madden in 2000 to take over as head of the family business, Madden felt honored to be asked.
“I took it as a great honor, to help perpetuate our family’s history in this business,” Madden said.
Bill remains chairman of the company, but since 2000 has taken more of a behind-the-scenes role after 50 years of working to grow the business.
As president and CEO, Madden brought in the Mini Cooper as an additional car selection and built Knauz North in 2007. The 84,000 sq. foot facility is located on the former Plantation Bakery property at Route 41 and Route 137.
There, pre-owned vehicles are sold, car storage and maintenance are offered, and and a conference center is available for regulary employee training. Madden emphasizes ongoing training for Knauz employees.
Under Madden’s leadership in 2007, the Smart Car was added as well, and two years later, the company sold Chrysler, the car company that started Knauz on its path to success. Then is when Hyundai became the final new brand sold at the dealership to date.
Knauz Gives Back, and the Golden Rule
Though Kim previously worked in a number of roles in her family’s business, today she is heavily involved in Knauz philanthropy and community service.
Knauz donates to more than 70 different organizations each year, which have included Lake Forest Open Lands, Susan G. Komen in partnership with Lake Forest Hospital, breast cancer research, Save-a-Pet, and countless others.
“It’s an important element of our company, our family and our business. We want to be a good citizen and have historically believed we should spread the giving,” Madden said.
The motto of the company is summed up by the 6-inch Golden Ruler given to every new employee - a reminder to follow the Golden Rule. Treat others like you would like to be treated.
Madden said generations of families have come back to purchase vehicles at Knauz, and employees, many of whom have worked for the business for up to 40 years, have sons or daughters now employed at the autopark.
“The more than 300 employees here are treated like family, it really is a family environment,” Madden said.
And with that number of people in his employ, Madden clearly understands the depth of obligation he has.
“To me, it’s not just 300 people, it is their extended families. It’s a serious responsibility, we have to make the right decisions, to make sure we have the right people in the right jobs,” Madden said.
“There is a sense of respect and pride here, for our customers and for our employees, it is what makes us very special,” Madden said.
Editor’s Note: A Driving Legacy is a series showcasing family-owned automotive dealerships with deep roots in their communities. It is part of the Patch mission to celebrate the people, businesses and traditions that are the foundation of our lives. If you would like to be included in this series, please contact Senior Regional Editor Tara Tesimu at firstname.lastname@example.org.