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July 20, 2015 10:15 PM

Karl's Kingdom

Sioux Falls

After nearly 60 years in business, Elmer Karl of Karl's TV & Appliance in Gregory has been recognized by the National Retail Federation.

Of course around here, Elmer Karl is recognized everywhere he goes after decades of appearing in his own TV commercials.

Karl was able to withstand competition from big box stores and the Internet and grow a family business that is now a TV and appliance empire. 

It's not unusual to see Elmer Karl in the Karl's TV & Appliance store in Sioux Falls or at one of his 20 other locations in seven states.  This 83-year-old shows no signs of slowing down as he greets customers and checks out the latest product lines.

"I'm not a great golfer, so I wouldn't want to do it every day.  And I don't collect stamps.  Don't have any other hobbies.  You know, what do you do?" Elmer Karl said.

Karl started the company in 1956 after doing a stint in the service in Korea.  He went to tech school in Chicago and worked for Marshall Fields as a TV repairman, before returning to his home town of Gregory to open up a TV repair shop with a $2,000 loan co-signed by his dad. There was only one problem.

"When I opened up in Gregory, there was no TV signal in Gregory.  And there were no televisions. So basically I was a radio repairman," Karl said.

Later that year the KPLO television tower went up.

"You might say it was smart, but it was kind of dumb.  Luck of the draw," Karl said.
"Was is just lucky or did you see that TV was going to be big?" Angela asked.
"No, I knew it was going to be popular but I didn't realize how popular it was so my plan was to try it for two years and if it didn't work out, go try something else," Karl said.

Instead of trying something else two years later, Karl was opening his second store in Winner.  By 1970, he had four TV and appliance stores.

"When I first started selling product, I decided I wouldn't sell it if I couldn't fix it.  So I don't sell lawn mowers. I never wanted to fix one of those," Karl said.

In 1986 Karl opened the Sioux Falls store, about the same time Best Buy came to town.  But Karl's been able to withstand competition from both big box stores and online.

"Our niche is that we do provide service and a lot of other stores don't get into that," Karl said.

His decades of business success boils down to some straight forward advice.

"How are you going to take care of the customer?  What have you got to sell that someone else doesn't have to sell. And I encourage people not to go into the appliance business.  We don't need any more competition," Karl said.

But perhaps one of Karl's biggest competitive advantages is the man himself.  After making the first TV commercial in 1957, he's become a household name over the airwaves through hundreds of commercials.

"You're your greatest salesman right?" Angela asked.
"Yeah, which is kind of unusual because I don't feature myself as a salesman," Karl said.
"You don't think of yourself as a salesman?" Angela asked.
"No, not really," Karl said.

He's sharing the spotlight these days with his daughter Sandi.  But this isn't Sandi's first time in front of the camera.  She appeared in Karl's commercials from third grade through high school.

"So some people may remember them," Sandi Karl said.

One of three Karl children, Sandi is the heir apparent of the company.  And she has deep admiration for her dad who built the business.

"He's a great mentor, not only for myself but for all of our managers and a lot of our employees, because he just shows honesty and great tact and is just an all-around nice guy," Sandi Karl said.

Karl himself says he couldn't have experienced such success without good employees, who now own 49 percent of the company.

"The employees are like family anyway," Karl said.

Now most people know Elmer Karl the salesman, but not many know the other side to Elmer Karl--the family man.

"My brother and I, we'd always joke, he'd come hauling into town. He might be a few minutes late, but he was always going to be at whatever activity us kids were involved in in school," Sandi Karl said.

This man, who's been able to successfully balance work and family, still goes into the office every day.

"Do you intend to retire?" Angela asked.
"Probably this evening at 5 o'clock, Karl said.

"Do you ever see him retiring?" Angela asked.
"No, no I don't. I don't think he could handle retirement," Sandi Karl said.

As for that slogan that's been ingrained in local television audiences' heads for six decades, that's not going away any time soon either.

"Be honest and don't forget to be your servicing dealer since 1956.  Just in case this gets on air, I want to be sure to get that in," Karl laughed.

Karl just purchased Lakebrook TV & Appliance in Madison this month. 
Karl is now in the running to be named America's Retail Champion of the Year by the National Retail Federation. The awards ceremony takes place in Washington, D.C. at the end of this month.

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