A self-described “dealer’s kid,” Kunes attended Northwood University in Midland, Michigan, and was always interested in every aspect of the dealership operation. He spent 20 years at his father’s dealership, Terry’s Ford Lincoln in Orland Park, Illinois, starting in the parts department.
“After that, I worked in service and in the office before heading to the sales floor,” he said. “In 1978 and 1979, I was the top Lincoln-Mercury salesperson in the country. Over the 20 years that I worked for Terry’s, I held just about every position in the dealership, up to general manager.”
In 1996, Kunes branched out on his own and bought Country Ford Lincoln Mercury in Delavan. “Moving my career and my family from the southside of Chicago to a small town in Wisconsin seemed a little crazy at the time but has turned out to be the best decision of my life,” he said.
Today, the Kunes Auto Group encompasses 26 auto dealerships and 11 RV facilities in Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, and five of his children currently work for the family enterprise. Kunes credits his first NADA 20 Group, a peer network, with helping him navigate his early years as a dealer and providing a foundation for strong growth.
“I have had the pleasure to be the chair of my NADA 20 Group a few times over multiple years, and I can only hope I was able to make an impact on my peers as much as these groups have helped me,” he said. “I'm a better operator, and my company is better, because of the advice, accountability and drive that these groups provide.”
Kunes is very proud that his dealerships have made the Automotive News Best Dealerships to Work For list 39 times since 2012. “The award is given to only 100 dealers a year and is largely based on employee feedback,” he said. “To know that I’ve been able to build an organization that treats their team better than most of the competition is very gratifying.”
In addition, he established the Kunes Family Foundation to facilitate charitable giving in the United States and abroad. “We donate 10 percent of gross profits – more than $1 million per year – to charities, specifically those that help the underprivileged,” he said. “We’ve always been dedicated to helping food pantries, homeless shelters, churches, schools and other humanitarian services in the communities we serve. Additionally, we’ve been able to build two orphanages in India, including funding a school and providing an ambulance.”
Kunes has also donated trucks and vans to local ministries and pantries; helped fund a building acquisition for the Open Arms Free Clinic in Elkhorn, Wisconsin; sent his IT team to retrofit a school in an underfunded neighborhood with working Wi-Fi and provided computers for every classroom; stocks food pantries; and much more.
“The growth we’ve seen in the dealerships has allowed me to give beyond what I could ever imagine,” he said. “I can only hope that we make ripples of positive impact for years to come.”
Kunes was nominated for the TIME Dealer of the Year award by William A. Sepic, president of the Wisconsin Automobile & Truck Dealers Association. He and his wife, Debbie, have seven children.