Although they grew up in a car-selling family, brothers Harvey and Harold Koning didn't set out to become the owners of three dealerships and partners in a fourth. In fact, each had a different career before they bought their first store.
The Konings' father and his brother had a motorcycle shop in The Netherlands, but in 1931, Harvey A. Koning moved to America. He settled in western Michigan and established a used-car lot and a tire store.
In 1946, he became a DeSoto-Plymouth dealer and remained an investor in the dealership until his death in 1978.
His sons had chosen different career paths. Harvey Koning, was working as a certified public accountant. Harold Koning taught in high schools and at a Christian college, all outside Michigan.
However, after his marriage, Harold Koning returned to Michigan.
'I came back to Grand Rapids to do something other than teach,' Harold Koning says. 'I ended up selling cars. My dad taught me that if you wanted to learn some important things about yourself, you could learn a lot in sales, because you'd learn about people, and understand them better and appreciate them more.'
After helping several auto dealers with their tax returns, Harvey Koning also began to look longingly at the car business. But to become a car dealer, you first had to be a car salesman.
'Back in the 1960s, the factories were looking for the hot-shot car salesmen to become dealers,' Harvey Koning recalls. 'They weren't looking for people with accounting and business degrees.'
He found a local dealer who was willing to take on a novice, and much to Harvey Koning's surprise, he was hired as the store's sales manager. Soon, things went so well that the Oldsmobile district sales manager told him of a dealership investment opportunity.
Harvey Koning asked his brother to join him, and they bought a minority interest in an Oldsmobile-Pontiac-GMC dealership in nearby Lowell.
Again, the brothers followed their father's advice: 'One of things my dad said at that time was, `Junior, get with General Motors.' ' Harvey Koning says.
Today, Harvey Koning, 61, and Harold Koning, 58, are involved in four GM stores.
Being frugal Dutchmen, they tried to do everything themselves at first. They did hire their sister, Flo Bosscher, as office manager, and 25 years later, she still works with her brothers.
In the early 1980s, as a recession was ending, Harold Koning realized he needed a sabbatical from the business, so the brothers hired an experienced used-car manager.
'We added structure and discipline to our management style,' Harvey Koning says.
'We weren't cutting edge,' adds his brother. 'When something didn't work, we'd throw more Harold and Harvey at it. You can do that, but it doesn't necessarily grow the organization. When I stepped outside, we hired people who brought things to the party that we didn't know or wouldn't have found out.'
In 1978, the brothers acquired full ownership of the Lowell store. A year later, they opened Grand Oldsmobile in Grandville, a Grand Rapids suburb. In 1996, they acquired a Buick-Chevrolet store and later merged with the Lemmen Brothers, a family operation whose Chevrolet dealership dates to 1918.
A common faith
While many brothers in business together have trouble with sibling rivalries, the Konings haven't had such problems and remain close. Both credit their religious and family oriented upbringing.
'The key is that we share a common faith,' Harvey Koning says. 'We also have common values and common goals, a common mission and common perspective. We march to the same drummer.
'We had very special parents and a very special upbringing,' he says. 'We have always had a common focus. We believe in the same thing. We have always agreed that this is the right way to do things.'
In business, Harold Koning adds, 'It comes down to the character and the personality of the partners. Harvey and I don't have the same personality, but there's the same character, and that makes a big difference. If both have character, it's easier to find understanding.'