“The School of Hard Knocks” Success

On The Road

We’ve traveled out west to tell you the story about a young man who takes a summertime job and turns it into an opportunity for him, his family, his employees, and yes the town of Kennebec, South Dakota.

“They bought me on the youth labor auction. We raised money for a youth center. And two days’ worth of work, and they had the KOA and the telephone company. So, I went to work at the, at the KOA. And, I worked my two days there and Lloyd came to me and said, “I’d like to hire you to stay on here,” said Rod Bowar. “He said ‘You go with the telephone company, you come with me. You don’t go with the KOA.’ And it started a wonderful relationship with Lloyd and the telephone company. I worked there, and I guess, I’m still working here.”.

Rod Bowar is the President and Manager of the Kennebec Telephone Company, established in this small west river town way back in 1908. Rod started working for prior owners Lloyd and Delores Johnstone when he was 18. “Lloyd, when I, had asked me, when I graduated high school, if I wanted to come back and work, he’d, he’d send me to tech school,” said Rod Bowar. “But unfortunately, he was killed in an auto accident before I could go. So, Delores, his wife, said she wanted to keep the company going and she wanted to keep it. She said, ‘I can’t send you to school, but I’ll help you learn anyway, and we’ll try to run it. The two of us.’ That was 1980 and she sold myself and my family the company in 1998,” said Rod Bowar.

He was only 18 when he had those discussions with Delores. Herb Sundall started working for the Johnstone’s and the telephone company as an attorney back in 1981.”Rod started just a few years before that, at the very bottom rung of the telephone company. And, just slowly over the years, worked his way up and, and I could tell from what Delores said, that she had kind of her eyes on him to eventually take it over,” said Herb Sundall. “And he did,” said Mike Huether. “And he did,” said Herb Sundall.

Now at age 58, Rod has lived, worked and prospered his entire life in Kennebec. He never went to school beyond being a 1980 Lyman Raider. According to him, his education came from “The School of Hard Knocks.” “His education came on the job training. When, when we say that he literally has probably done every job that the telephone company ever had, I think that’s accurate,” said Herb Sundall. “Yes,” said Mike Huether.

Kennebec is a town of only about 300 folks and imagine, the Kennebec Telephone Company employs 54 full and part time employees. Matt Collins started working there at age 14. “We were mowing, weed eating, tilling trees. I walked behind a cable plow a lot of miles, feeding telephone cable behind a plow,” said Matt Collins. And now what are you doing?” asked Mike Huether. “Assistant Manager here, oversee all the operations of the company,” said Matt Collins.
 
Matt’s storyline has a familiar ring to Rod’s, doesn’t it? For 32 years, Matt has stayed in town and he is proud of Kennebec, the phone company and yes, his coach in business and life. “As far as I’m concerned, the best place in America to live, it’s Kennebec, South Dakota. We got great people. We got a great community. We got a great school system. We got everything you need right here,” said Matt Collins. “And a heck of an employer, said Mike Huether. “Absolutely, I got the best employer that a guy could possibly ever have,” said Matt Collins.
 
“He understands just about everything you could ever throw at him. He’s a thinker. He’s family oriented. He’s community driven. He’s just an all-around, he’s one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life, said Matt Collins.
 
Rod is heavily involved and deeply invested in Kennebec and Lyman County. It’s just the right thing to do. “We had to drive 60 miles to get a vehicle repaired. And so, we said, ‘Okay, we’ll add a mechanic to our staff.’ And well then, we quickly had the local people coming and we discovered, well, it just evolved into a Napa Auto Care Center. And, and we did the same thing with electrical and with construction and all these things. said Rod Bowar. “If we’ve got that need, other people have it too and you just, you just go do it.”

“People came to him and said, ‘Hey, we need a restaurant’ And he dug into it. And we got a brand new, he built a brand-new restaurant right over behind that building over there,” said Matt Collins. Rod is leasing the building and the café just celebrated its one-year anniversary. He is a big believer in investing in education and training and the business returns that come with it.

“We invest in our youth, to come back and work for us. It’s a recruitment tool. We help them with their tech school education or the university school education. In exchange, they come back and work for us. It’s how we’re building our future workforce,” said Rod Bowar.
 
It is wonderful that Kennebec has someone like Rod so fully vested in its success. It is rubbing off on others big time. “I couldn’t work for a better person. I couldn’t work in a better community. I couldn’t be around better people, as the people are in this community. I firmly believe that and I’ll go to my grave saying that, I… I love this place,” said Matt Collins. “Anything that, that you do in the community, the size of 300 that helps one business probably helps another,” said Herb Sundall. “Yes,” said Mike Huether. “You know, but it’s all trying to keep the doors open in Kennebec, South Dakota. Instead of everybody moving east,” said Herb Sundall.

Rod wants his vision to rub off on all of you watching “KELOLAND On the Road” as well. “Watch for the opportunity. I mean, you know, if you need something and you discover your neighbor needs it and this, there may be an opportunity there. Take advantage of it. And I, and I’m sure that’s probably a more of a rural thing but, you know, it, it doesn’t, it’s not hard to figure that out. When everybody’s going out of town or having trouble finding something to do something, there’s an opportunity there. Opportunity knocks. Answer the door,” said Rod Bowar. Rod was named to the South Dakota Hall of Fame as part of the 2018 class.  If you want to be inspired by the actions of some wonderful women and men that have truly made a difference in life, stop off at the South Dakota Hall of Fame located just off the interstate in Chamberlain, South Dakota.  It is well worth the trip.

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