WHITEFISH – When it comes to business, success is often found in a mixture of passion, drive and talent. For Don “K” Kaltschmidt, the secret ingredient for success is as obvious as the smile on his face: treat others the way you want to be treated.
Kaltschmidt’s Don K Chevrolet Chrysler Subaru celebrates 25 years in business this year. He was also one of 55 auto dealers across the country to be nominated for the prestigious 2015 Time Magazine Dealer of the Year award.
But Kaltschmidt’s journey from growing up in Kalispell and becoming a successful car dealer in Whitefish was not a straight line between the cities. After attending Flathead High School, he left in 1974, joining the U.S. Marine Corps in 1975.
A three-year enlistment with the Marines sent Kaltschmidt into Southeast Asia, but the conflict in Vietnam was over by the time he was serving in active duty. Still, becoming a Marine was integral in his growth, he said.
“I really liked the Marine Corps, it taught me a lot,” he said. “You can do more than you think you can, physically, mentally, and spiritually.”
It was during his time with the Marines, be it stationed in San Diego or out in different countries, that Kaltschmidt learned he could communicate and fit in with nearly any group of people.
He also honed his salesmanship, running various business ventures while enlisted, such as buying and selling radios while abroad.
“It’s what I’m good at,” Kaltschmidt said. “When I got out, that’s when I got into the car business.”
By the early 1980s, he left the Marines as a corporal after his three-year commitment, and was working at City Chevrolet in San Diego as a salesman. He went to another dealership where he had management opportunities. Soon after, he married Debbie, who he met in Southern California and talked into moving back to his home state after they began having children.
“I didn’t want to raise my children in Southern California,” he said. “I wanted to raise them in Montana.”
Moving back to the Flathead in 1985, Kaltschmidt got a job as the sales manager at Jim Dowen Chevrolet in Whitefish. He was promoted to general manager, and then bought out Dowen in 1990, followed by buying out Tommy Thomas in 1991 to become the sole owner.
He wasn’t risk averse, Kaltschmidt said, and he put everything he had into owning that dealership. Looking back, he understands what he had on the line.
“If it would have went the other way, I would have been broke,” Kaltschmidt said.
Business flourished, and the dealership moved from its downtown location to its current spot just south of town on U.S. Highway 93. He said life was pretty good from 2001 to 2007, with few waves to mar the calm seas.
But then the recession hit the Flathead, taking jobs and income with it. The automotive sales market plummeted. Still, Kaltschmidt said he saw an opportunity in the face of General Motors pulling franchises from Montana dealers: he had been loyal to Chevrolet, but the company’s decision to pull franchises freed up his loyalties.
Don K expanded to include Subaru, Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram by 2011. The recession was a brutal time at the dealership, he said. He stopped taking a salary in 2008 and 2009, and the company was down to 28 employees.
“In February 2009, we sold 13 cars,” he said. “I lost $40,000 that month, and I was elated that we only lost $40,000.”
The dealership persevered, and now sells an average of 150 automobiles a month, or 250 counting the fleet business. There are 100 people working at Don K, with 90 of them holding down full-time jobs.
Delsena Caldwell began working at Don K in 1989 in the parts department. She and her husband Jerry stayed with the dealership for 10 years before moving to Dillon for a decade. When they returned to the Flathead, they came back to Don K, where she now works in warranty administration and Jerry works in the service department.
“We love working here,” Caldwell said. “He’s good to us.”
Kaltschmidt has a reputation for being a straightforward, honest person, said Tony Hubbard, the general manager at University Motors in Missoula. Hubbard is chairman of the Montana Automotive Dealers Association, and has worked with Kaltschmidt on that board for several years.
“Don’s a great guy,” Hubbard said. “I think it’s one where he’s got a great personality, he laughs and jokes with you, but I think he’s a real honest guy, one of those people if he tells you something, you can count on it, both personally and professionally.”
Connecting with and giving back to the community is important to Kaltschmidt, who said he views his business success as a gift from the Flathead and a tribute to his employees.
“It’s been a really great ride,” Kaltschmidt said. “I’m just really grateful for what has been provided.”
At 58, Kaltschmidt is looking down the road to retirement, possibly in the next six to 10 years. Two of his three sons, Erik and Jason, already work at the dealership, and his youngest, Kevin, is finishing up his degree at the University of Montana before returning back to Whitefish to learn about taking over the business.
“He wants my job,” Kaltschmidt said. “He’s told me that since he was 10.”
Retirement will mean more time for hobbies or philanthropic endeavors, such as going on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, though it will also mean leaving behind decades of work.
“I know one day I’ve got to walk out that door,” he said. “I really found what I love to do. There’s no better deal.”
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