Robert Kruse’ 49

Dean’s Lifetime Achievement Award

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Robert Kruse has spent his whole life thinking about cars.

The 88-year-old entrepreneur has worked for top-selling dealerships all over the U.S., from Ohio to Minnesota to Washington state, but there’s one car he’ll never forget — his first.

“I bought my first car my sophomore year of high school — it was a Ford Model A,” he said. “It cost me $95 and I sold it later for $105.”

Kruse received a Dean's Lifetime Achievement Award from the College of Education and Human Development in November 2014 for his accomplished career in the automobile industry.

At the height of his career with Chevrolet, Kruse oversaw 170 dealerships throughout Minnesota. Later, he launched several of his own entrepreneurial ventures, providing consulting in dealer management and marketing for the auto industry at the firms Unicorn Enterprises and Lyon Share Ltd.

Kruse grew up in Elida, Ohio, a village several miles northwest of Lima. His father was an auto mechanic with his own garage who later became an associate Chevrolet dealer in Lima, Kruse said.

Thinking back on his early feelings about his father’s work, Kruse said, “It just looked impressive to me.”

Still, as he got older, Kruse had other ideas about careers he wanted to pursue.

“I wanted to play basketball first, then I thought I’d be a history teacher and a coach — but then I found out what they were paying,” he joked. “I spent the first 18 years of my life in Elida, and I knew I was interested in getting out of the area and doing something good with my life.”

His Bowling Green studies were put on hold when, at the height of World War II, Kruse was drafted into the U.S. Navy in 1944. He was 18 years old. Kruse went into the Navy Reserve in 1946 and later was recalled from 1951-1953, during the Korean War.

After his military service, Kruse got his first clerical job at General Motors in Detroit in 1953. Over the next three decades, he climbed the ranks in the auto dealer world, moving from his clerical position to Chevrolet’s district sales manager in Lorain, Ohio. His career took him all over the country as he continued to be promoted, first to zone sales manager, overseeing district managers, and then regional manager.

“I don’t think I ever filled out a job application in my life,” Kruse said. “I’ve never asked for a raise in my life, never asked for a promotion…I’d just perform each job to the absolute best of my ability, and if I was recognized or offered another position, I usually accepted.”

Once, when he was asked at a regional manager’s meeting to write a manual about wholesale compensation, Kruse simply said he’d do it — even though he’d never written anything for the company before.

The key success in accepting any assignment, Kruse said, is to listen. Learn and understand what’s being asked, then do it.

“It’s very simple,” he said. “You don’t always have to be a superstar. If you know what your objective is, what you’re trying to accomplish, and you study, listen and find out what’s expected of you, people will take notice.”

Near the end of his tenure at Chevrolet, Kruse had aspirations to become national sales manager, but opted instead to take a buyout in 1986, during a company reorganization. What could have been a perfect opportunity to retire for some was instead for Kruse a chance to focus on the next chapter of his career in consulting. He launched firms of his own, such as Unicorn Enterprises, but also partnered on several other business ventures. Among other opportunities, Kruse became a business partner with Ally Financial in Seattle and worked as a dealership development manager for Minnesota-based Lupient Automotive Group.

Kruse and his wife, Doris, are now retired and live in Arizona. Looking back, he said he’s grateful to have been able to do what he loved and to work alongside so many peers with talent, passion and integrity.

“I’ve spent a lot of years working and I enjoyed all of them,” he said.