Kari Rihm never imagined she’d be a commercial truck dealer.
But when tragedy struck her family, she fought to gain a place in the truck industry, summoned her considerable determination, and built a successful Kenworth truck business that generated $254 million in 2022.
From her office bordering Concord Street in South St. Paul, she tells the story of how she became a widowed homemaker in 2010 and within 12 years was named the national truck dealer of the year by the American Truck Dealers Association.
“Kari is tough as nails,” says Jodie Teuton, vice president of Kenworth of Louisiana. “She’s not a quitter.”
Long before Kari Rihm, 65, became the president and CEO of Rihm Family Cos., the Roseville native got married in 1992 to John Rihm, who worked at his family’s St. Paul-based Kenworth truck dealership.
In 1993, John Rihm became company president, and Kari became a full-time homemaker after working for multiple employers in special events and marketing positions. Over the next several years, John and Kari focused on raising J.B., John’s son from his first marriage, and Libby, their daughter.
Then their world unraveled in 2010. John had developed brain cancer. “He was diagnosed on the 24th of June, and he died on the 5th of October,” Kari says.
The dealer contract that John had with Kenworth Truck Co. designated him the “dealer principal,” and it didn’t list a successor. When the time was right, John had planned to retire and sell the business.
Suddenly, Kari had a 100% ownership stake in the Rihm Kenworth dealership, but following John’s death she was devastated, exhausted, and wanted a few days to think and rest. Then a longtime contractor showed up at her Shoreview home to discuss a roofing project that was delayed because of John’s illness. Something clicked in Kari’s brain when the contractor asked her what would become of the Rihm company. She replied: “I own a business. I better get to work.”
Teuton was one of the first people in the Kenworth dealer network to offer Kari Rihm some support. “Life’s not fair, and she got handed a sour deal in losing John,” says Teuton, an attorney who grew up in a family that owned a truck dealership. Women truck dealers are a rarity, so Teuton knew that Kari Rihm would have to make a strong case to the Kenworth Truck Co. to hang on to the dealership she inherited.
Kari Rihm’s life would have been simpler if she had sold the dealership. “I knew that I shouldn’t make a decision about selling it until I could grasp the value of the business,” she recalls.
About 100 employees were working for the company in 2010. Rihm’s instinct was to be a good steward of her late husband’s family business that was founded in 1932. “One of the things that was driving that thought was that there were a lot of people who had worked there for many years that helped provide our family with a very nice life,” Rihm says. “I didn’t want them to feel abandoned.”
While the Rihm Kenworth facilities in St. Paul had become somewhat outdated, Rihm says, “I knew that it was a good, steady business because people need trucks, they break, and they need to be fixed.” Despite lingering effects of the Great Recession, the company was still making money.
Kari conferred with her company attorney and CFO, studied the Rihm financial statements in depth, and asked plenty of questions of other Kenworth dealers. She decided to plead her case with top management at the Kenworth Truck Co. headquarters in Kirkland, Washington, because she wanted to make the big commitment to operate the company she owned.
After a stressful, months-long preparation process, she presented her company business plan to Kenworth leaders. On April 15, 2011, she got a letter from Kenworth notifying her that she had won approval to become a dealer principal. The letter was accompanied by a three-year dealer contract.
“They had specific things that I had to do within a certain time frame,” Rihm says. “One of them was to expand into more of our territory. So by December of that year, we opened [a facility] in Sauk Centre.”
Kari Rihm’s growth trajectory for her business had begun.
“Kari doesn’t dip her toe in the water. Kari dives in headfirst.”
—Jodie Teuton, vice president, Kenworth of Louisiana
“Kari comes out of the box knowing that, in order to please Kenworth [management] and do what she’s got to do, she’s got to build a new facility,” Teuton says.
Rihm wanted to build a new headquarters in St. Paul or a Twin Cities suburb. The Rihm family business had operated for decades alongside University and Cleveland avenues. “There wasn’t enough room [there] to expand at all, and we needed more space,” she says. But finding a location wasn’t easy.
She ultimately met Jack Grotkin, president of R.J. Ryan Construction, who found two sites where she could expand her company. The first location nailed down was in Coon Rapids, where Grotkin already had done up-front site planning work. The second site, in South St. Paul, had housed a slaughterhouse. The business park had a section remaining that was large enough for Rihm Kenworth. “We worked out a deal where it was going to be build-to-suit with an option to purchase,” Rihm says.
“We broke ground [in South St. Paul] on the 17th of May in 2017,” she says. “The next day we broke ground in Coon Rapids.” R.J. Ryan Construction built both facilities by early 2018, and Rihm employees moved into a combined 140,000 square feet of space in the Twin Cities metro for its headquarters, body shop, sales, service and parts departments.
Rihm Kenworth’s territory covers most of Minnesota and part of western Wisconsin. By 2021, Rihm was operating seven full-service sales, service, and parts facilities in that region.
Along the expansion path, Rihm also bought a truck leasing company in 2017. “As I’m succeeding in growing the business, in footprint and volume of sales, people are noticing this,” Rihm says. Her company was selling trucks to a Red Wing-based leasing company, and its owners asked Rihm if she would buy their business.
“I purchased them and kind of blindsided [Kenworth headquarters],” she says. “Their fleet was primarily made up of Volvos and Freightliners. What it gave me was an infrastructure and an existing fleet, instead of having to start from ground zero.” She has since transitioned the business to leasing Kenworth trucks.
Sara Stern, a family business consultant, says Rihm started contracting with her shortly after she bought the leasing business. “She wanted me to come in and help the two leadership teams figure out how to work together well in the same company,” Stern says.
Diversifying The Truck Dealers Industry
In March 2022, Kari Rihm was honored as the national truck dealer of the year by the American Truck Dealers Association. In her acceptance speech, she urged the audience to bring more women into the industry.
Rihm became a Kenworth truck dealer after spending several years as a homemaker. “Many were skeptical of a woman, an outsider who had been retired from a first career for 17 years, coming into the industry,” Rihm said. “I am proud to say I have had a positive impact on our business and industry, accomplishing more in 11 years than our previous owners did in 79.”
“She’s courageous,” Stern says of Rihm, who “digs in to get the details” and best information possible before making the final call on big business decisions. She also works closely with J.B. Rihm, who joined the business in 2011 as a parts sales manager and is now chief operating officer.
John Hausladen, president and CEO of the Minnesota Trucking Association, says Rihm is “intentional, customer-focused, and thoughtful.” She serves on the association’s board and this year is chairing a new alternative fuels task force.
He notes the “clear vision” that Rihm had as she built the business. On her watch, she’s tripled the workforce and grew company revenue from $72 million in 2010 to $254 million in 2022.
“The business that exists today is a reflection of her ability to think strategically and to think operationally, and, really importantly, keep people in mind throughout the whole process, both her internal team and her customers,” Hausladen says.
“She just keeps moving forward,” says Rihm’s industry peer Teuton. “Kari doesn’t dip her toe in the water. Kari dives in headfirst.”