Chuck Stephenitch has handed over a lot of keys in his time.
But the last pair he handed over was the hardest: the keys to his workplace.
After 50 years of putting people in the driver’s seat at Ken Nelson Auto Group in Dixon, Stephenitch is ready to take retirement for a test spin.
The decision came after Stephenitch sealed one last deal – with his family.
“When I turned 70, I realized that there was only so much time left on this Earth,” Stephenitch said. “I’ve been so dedicated to this job because I love it. I think I owe my family some time with them.”
The Maytown native was Ken Nelson’s most senior employee. He started in sales, where he spent 10 years, and eventually moved into wholesale for the rest of his tenure, spending many days on the road from the crack of dawn until dusk and working with as many as 35 dealerships at a time to bid and rotate stock.
While Stephenitch has spent a lot of time at Ken Nelson, he always made sure none of the inventory did.
“We won’t let a car get old here,” he said.
Stephenitch even owned 49% of business for a time. He came aboard when most salesmen were older, but eventually more younger salesmen started working as the 1970s progressed.
Chuck has seen many highs and lows in the auto business – including interest rates, which hit 18 to 20 percent during the 1980s, a far cry from some of the single-digit rates of today, but having a strong local reputation kept them going, he said.
Once the internet came, it was a big game changer.
“We would take in a Mercedes or a Jaguar and probably would have very little market for them in Dixon,” Stephenitch said. “With the internet, it changed our whole business. You get people calling from other states because they’re pulling it up on the internet. We never would have had that customer before, we just would have sent it to the auction.”
He doesn’t remember his first sale, but there are certain ones that stick out, like the one 2 months into the job when he head to deal with a customer who wasn’t happy about a price. A local business owner was shocked and jabbed his finger in Stephenitch’s chest in between every other word.
“Fifty-five hundred dollars for a new Buick Electra?” Stephenitch recalled the customer saying. “You’re going to price yourself right out of business!”
But they didn’t, and instead Stephenitch saw the dealership expand into Sterling and add more brands to the fold. Buick Opels were a big thing in the 1970s, and he sold a few.
Datsun, which later became Nissan, was another addition.
He hired his brother, Ron, on Feb. 12, 1985, to sell Datsuns at a location west of town. They’ve worked together for 35 years, but with the brothers being in different roles, they didn’t cross paths a lot.
“It seems like yesterday,” Ron said. “We’ve never had an argument or nothing.”
Another brother, Terry, also worked for Ken Nelson before owning the former Family Affair Motorcars in Dixon.
“It’s so busy around here, and it’s like having another employee,” Chuck said.
Another important hire was someone who would become Chuck’s boss, Rick Curia, who came aboard in 1989 and now owns the dealership.
Upon taking over, Curia wanted the business to be a family, and it really has been that way, Stephenitch said.
“It always has been like a family around here,” Stephenitch said. “I know many people say that, but it really has been here.
Stephenitch is “an icon” and “a nice guy” in the local auto industry, service director Jeremy Jahn said.
Administrative assistant Pam Ehredt has worked with Stephenitch for nearly 30 years.
“You got to love Chuck,” she said. “He’s a good guy. Everything about him is special, and we hate to see him go.”
He’ll now look forward to a Florida vacation in the next few weeks and spending more time with his seven grandchildren from three children of his own; he and his wife, Kathy, have been married for 43 years.
It wasn’t easy, though, for the venerate salesman to sell himself on the idea of retiring.
It’ll be hard for him to leave behind a second family at Ken Nelson. “love them. I really do,” he said. “I felt like a grandfather here with these young people.”