Jewel Lee Kenley was a piano teacher and homemaker when she suddenly found herself in charge of a car dealership.
After her husband, Ed, died in a 1993 car accident on the way to a golf vacation, she took over Ed Kenley Ford, the business he had opened in Layton, Utah, 12 years earlier.
"My whole purpose became to protect the jobs of the employees and the legacy that my husband had, and to protect the culture and values that my husband had incorporated," said Kenley, who was injured in the crash and temporarily used a wheelchair as she began learning the business.
More than two decades later, Kenley has kept her husband's name on the sign and his attentive but easygoing philosophy in the showroom. She still has eight members of her original management team and some customers who have purchased more than 30 vehicles from the store, which is located about a half-hour drive north of Salt Lake City.
"We'll never be a superstar in terms of volume, but that's not what's most important to us," said Kenley. "What's most important to us is we have a relationship with our customers and keep our customers."
To help build those relationships, Kenley sets aside time each week to say thank you. She calls everyone who buys a new vehicle and most used-car customers, all within two weeks of their purchase.
"It is a lot of work, but it's worth it," Kenley said. "We have a very good customer loyalty rating."
Kenley, who worked as an Internal Revenue Service accountant before her husband started the dealership, said she calls at least 50 to 60 customers most months; in a good year, she has called as many as 1,000. She said she doesn't call those who buy from a bargain lot of older, high-mileage vehicles, only because she doesn't want them to infer that they come with some sort of a guarantee.
Many times she simply ends up leaving a voice-mail message and moves to the next name. But occasionally the calls can be rather time-consuming.
"Sometimes you can't get them off the phone. Some people just want to talk your leg off," Kenley said. "I just tell them we know they have a lot of choices, and we appreciate their business. I call them even if they've bought 30-plus cars from us, because I appreciate that continued business."
She also asks how they like the vehicle and whether they need any help or are experiencing any problems. If so, "we fix that right then," she said.
In addition to making customers more likely to come back in the future, "it's nice to know before they get a company survey," Kenley said. "I like that feedback. It gives me a really good sense of which cars are more popular and satisfaction about different models."
Jim Barlow, an investment adviser who estimates he has leased 15 vehicles from the dealership, said Kenley still calls after each one. He first shopped there because Kenley is a client but said the service he receives from her and her staff makes him keep going back, most recently for an F-150 for himself and an Explorer for his wife.
"She always calls my wife or myself -- even does that to us even though she sees us more often than that," Barlow said. "And we've become real Ford fans. They're pretty innovative, and they've been nice vehicles."
Kenley asks her employees to stay in close contact with customers as well, telling service writers to provide frequent updates about their vehicle, for example. When walking through the service department, she sometimes holds a sign reading "status calls" as a half-joking -- but also half-serious -- reminder.
She said a vendor once tried to sell her an automated system that contacts customers, but she prefers to do it herself. "I thought, there's no reason why I can't do that," she said. "I just thought it was kind of cold."
Eventually, Kenley expects to put the dealership and her husband's legacy into the hands of their son Brett, 44, who is currently her vice president.
"It wasn't my career choice," she said, "but it has been so rewarding in so many unexpected ways."