Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Kossmans of Cleveland

A driving force in business for generations
by Robert McFarland, Jr.
Delta Business Journal, June 2000

As a strong family must grow together and remain loyal to its members, so too have family-owned Delta businesses stayed the course. The same values that sustain the family such as tradition, loyalty, and care, have also helped in growing many of the Delta's finest businesses. If there are any secrets to the Delta's economic strength, one would be that family owned businesses, which have endured and prosper here have played a larger role in our economy than many realize. Many business owners say that our quality of life, faith in our people, faith in our future, and traditional values are the main reasons why they remain here and why in their view, the Delta is moving forward.

One such family business is with this belief and practices it is the Kossman family of Cleveland. "I hear all of the time what many in our state say about the Delta, however I would argue that our quality of life is unmatched and that our future is very promising," says S. E. "Ed" Kossman, Jr. owner of Kossman's Inc.

"It's a special place with special people who show a genuine concern for their community. For example, the Delta has come a long way in recent years in overcoming racial problems that have existed and I see the Delta now head and shoulders above many other areas in our country in that regard. Although the Delta continues to be driven by agriculture, industry has become a prominent factor in our economy. Obviously, we still have many obstacles to overcome; however we are moving in the right direction and taking the proper steps to see that our future remains promising."

Kossman's, Inc., one of the oldest and largest automobile dealers in Delta carries the total GM line: Buick, Pontiac, Chevrolet, Cadillac, Oldsmobile, and GMC. Now, with Ed's son, Edward, III on board, the family business legacy continues with the fourth generation. Such longetivity and family continuity is a glowing testament to the strong business values that the Kossman's of Cleveland represent. Among those values volunteerism and community involvement are important to Kossman and his family. "You just have to give back to the community what the community has provided for you," says Kossman. "My father taught me that a long time ago and I have tried to live by this."

The Kossman famly has been a part of the Delta business community for 83 years. During the turn of the century, Ed, Jr.'s grandfather, Benjamin Kossman, arrived in the Delta holding different jobs until 1917 when he opened a car dealership in Greenville. Six years later he sold the dealership, opening an automotive parts business. In 1927 at the age of 21, Ed, Sr. moved to Cleveland renting a room in Mrs. Ivey G. Hill's home who was also the postmaster and mother-in-law of Nap Cassibry, Sr. After arriving in Cleveland, Ed., Sr., opened a Pontiac - Oakland (an early GM car) dealership with a partner. "My father went broke during the depression and moved back to Greenville and sold automobiles," says Kossman. "Over a four year period he paid off all of his debts which during the depression, a lot of people who went broke were unable to do. However, my father did."

In 1941, Cleveland businessman and banker, Nap Cassibry, Sr. called Ed, Sr. in Greenville informing him that the Buick dealership in Cleveland was for sale. A deal had already been reached with someone in Cleveland; but, General Motors wanted the potential buyer to enlist a partner who had experience in the car business. "Mr. Cassibry, in delivering this news to my father, also went on to say that he felt the potential buyer and my father would make good partners and that because of the way my father handled his previous financial situation during the Depression, the bank would lend him the money to go into business with his partner on a 50 -50 basis," says Kossman. "Mr. Cassibry went on to say that this potential partner of my father's was a very honest man, but that he wasn't always the easiest person to get a long with and he predicted the partnership would probably only work about two years and at that time my father should buy his partner's share and the bank would help him."

True enough, just over a year later, Kossman, Sr. purchased his partner's interest in the company. However, World War II was brewing overseas and the good times were still a long way off. During WW II, there were almost no new automobiles for dealers to sell. The country's giant car makers were doing their part to supply U.S. troops with vehicles, tanks, and on some instances, airplanes. Many car dealerships, for lack of inventory, closed across the U.S. in the early to mid-forties. Kossman, Sr., however found a way to keep his small Cleveland dealership in business. "During the early part of the war, my father had the foresight to travel to New York where he purchased 150 cars, which back then, was probably a normal three year supply based on what we sold at that time," says Kossman. "He had the cars shipped by train back to Mississippi and between his inventory and his service department, he made it through WW II."

After the war, there was a great demand for automobiles. Detroit had trouble meeting those demands in a timely fashion and the wait could be very long. "At the end of WW II, cars sold for around $1,800 and all dealers required a deposit on orders to keep consumers from getting on several dealer's lists at once," says Kossman. "Consumers would do this in order to enhance their chances of getting a car quickly. However, it was an unfair practice to dealers that ultimately produced the non-refundable deposit system. On the other side of this situation, it was quite common for dealers to take money under the table from consumers to get a car at an earlier time. However, with my father's integrity and honesty, he never did this and told me many times that he could have been a millionaire very quickly had he chosen to operate this way. Many dealers at the time who did take money under the table thought that my father and others like him were crazy for not doing it. When my father's own mother wanted a car, she became number 84 on the list and did not receive any special treatment. This was just the beginning of me learning honesty and integrity from my father."

The U.S. economy boomed after WW II. The economy of the Mississippi Delta also boomed and as new models and lines of cars out of Detroit were introduced to the U.S., the Kossmans and other dealers introduced them to the Delta. At the end of college, Kossman joined his father in their Cleveland dealership. A product of the Cleveland's public school system, Kossman went to Tulane University in New Orleans until his senior year when he returned home. "Two of my father's most important employees left to start a used-car dealership, so I decided not to return to Tulane my senior year in order to help with the business," says Kossman. "This was against my father's wishes." (Kossman eventually finished his senior year at Delta State while working in the family business.)

"An interesting aspect of being a GM dealer back then was that GM also owned Frigidaire appliances," says Kossman. "Most GM dealers at that time also sold Frigidaire appliances. After I graduated from college and went to work in the dealership, the first thing that I pushed for was to discontinue selling appliances. It just did not make sense to me to sell cars and appliances. It was very complicated and the appliances took up a lot of space. It was also very difficult to get technicians to repair them."

In 1960, the Kossman's moved their dealership from Cotton Row to where it is today on Highway 61. In 1963, they added to their GMC and Buick dealership the Pontiac and Cadillac lines by purchasing that local dealership. (In 1992, they added the Chevrolet and Oldsmobile franchise.)

Not long after graduating from college, Kossman, Jr. became recognized by GM as a co-dealer with his father, a designation rarely achieved someone at such an early age. Also, during that time, Kossman, Sr. became heavily involved in the economic development efforts of Bolivar County and, along with several other area business leaders, played a role in luring one of Cleveland's largest businesses, Baxter Medical.

As Kossman, Sr. became involved in the economic development of Bolivar County, Kossman, Jr.'s role in the dealership became greater. "Around that time, Mississippi had a program called, Balance Agriculture with Industry," says Kossman. "My father was contacted by a group that wanted to build a ceramic tile plant in South Mississippi and in order to do so they had to sell stock. They approached my father about becoming an investor and he became interested in the project. However, they couldn't sell it in South Mississippi, so my father told the developers that if they would agree to put the plant in Cleveland then he would make sure that all of the stock was sold." The citizens of the Delta invested and Mississippi Ceramic Tile became a reality in Cleveland. Kossman, Sr. became it's president, dually running the tile plant and car dealership for several years. Kossman, Sr. later turned over the day-to-day responsibilities for the dealership to his son. "It is an exciting business and still at 63 years old, I get up every morning and I'm excited to go to work," says Kossman. "It's just in my blood. I have been very fortunate to love this business because it is a tough business."

That spirit includes a strong advocacy of volunteerism which has no doubt been passed from father to son. "We all need to strive to help others, it's just the way the world must work," says Kossman. "Wherever you live, you have to try to make it a better place for all." A past president of the Cleveland-Bolivar County Chamber of Commerce and the Bolivar County Industrial Foundation, and the Cleveland Rotary Club. Kossman has also served on several General Motors Corporation, Cadillac, and Buick committees. He currently serves on the Board of the Mississippi Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson, and holds positions on the Boy Scout Council - Memphis region, Delta State University Foundation, and Delta Council.

In 1981, S. E. Kossman, Sr. died and seven years ago, Edward Kossman, III, the fourth generation of Kossmans, joined his father in the family business. Ed�s brother, Chester, is also associated with the business. "Of course, every father would love for his son to join him in business," says Kossman. "However, I was never really sure if Edward wanted to be in this business. My wife always thought that this would be his cup of tea, but I didn't really know. I can tell you that I am delighted that he is here and I look forward to Edward taking over the dealership one day."

"Whatever success has come our way in the auto business is due to our loyal employees and customers," says Kossman. "I feel now that we have in place the most competent and dedicated department heads and employees than we have ever had in the history of our business, and this is something of which I am very proud."

Kossmans, Inc. has recently received General Motors' Service Satisfaction Trophy, an award that recognizes the most outstanding service department in the Memphis region. When asked to provide his thoughts on the Delta's future, Kossman responds, "Like all parts of the world, we have our ups and downs. I think there are a lot of good business opportunities here. I think it's unbelievable the really great industries that the Delta has. I-69 and our new bridge that will cross the river in Southwest Bolivar County will no doubt introduce a new business era to the Delta, I believe. "I think some very promising times are ahead for our region," says Kossman. "I am proud that a lot of young people have chosen to remain in the Delta and I see this next generation full of emerging leaders with a lot of enthusiasm and interest in our region of the state."

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