One of the best definitions of true philanthropy is “planting a tree that you are never going to get to sit under.” If that is the case, then the first seeds to the Dahl family’s philanthropic forest were sown in Westby, Wis., back in the late 1800s, when the city’s popular gathering place, the A.H. Dahl & Co. General Store, became a Ford Motor Company agent. When the Model Ts lined up in front of the store began to be purchased by scores of happy customers and were flying down the streets of Western Wisconsin, it sparked a philosophy of giving back to the community that has flourished through five generations of Dahl family automotive ownership.
“It all started with the family’s general store business,” said Dahl Automotive President Andrew Dahl. "Every community had a general store. That’s where you would get your dry goods, tobacco, clothing and groceries. It was a place to do your shopping, but it was a lot more than that. It was also a center of community … a place where people gathered. When my forefathers began selling Model Ts out of the general store, the bond with the community became even stronger.
“We began to realize that we were an integral part of the community,” Dahl continued. “When you think about it, everybody needs a car, and everybody needs to service their car. The auto dealer is an important part of automotive ownership, and the experience you have at the dealership really sets the tone for your enjoyment of owning the vehicle. Our philosophy of doing business has always been to develop our teams and facilities so that guests can have a relaxing and positive experience whether they are purchasing a vehicle, or having their vehicle serviced. We also have perpetuated a core value that started way back in the general store days. We feel that because people are trusting us with such an important purchase, and its upkeep, we have a responsibility to give back to the community.
“My brothers and I are fifth-generation, and giving back is the core value, above all else, that has been passed from generation to generation. That’s just the way it is. We’re Dahls. We’re in the car business. Our communities have blessed us, our families, and the team members who have alongside us. We feel we have a responsibility to give back the community … but it’s not just a responsibility. We take a joy in being able to pick some amazing charitable organizations, identify areas of specific needs in each community, and then try to help meet those needs with the resources we have been blessed with.”
It’s easy to measure the positive financial impact that the over $26 million Dahl Auto Plaza and its over 100 team members have on Winona’s economy and tax rolls. However, for Winona's arts and nonprofit community, the Dahl family's contributions of time, talent and treasure have created a positive ripple effect that has helped establish Winona as a regional arts destination and a better place to live.
“The Dahl’s impact on the Family and Children’s Center goes two ways,” said
Board President Laura Eddy. “They give very generously, but they have also served on our board, and been very active in our organization. The Dahl’s philosophy is humility-based service. They give their time, and they give their financial support. Not only are they givers, but they also encourage their employees to get involved and give. Their annual Lube-a-Thon is a whole day where they give free oil changes, with a free-will offering being donated to the Family and Children’s Center. Their entire team is there all day donating their time, and that’s over 100 employees.
“The Dahls contribute to Shakespeare, Winona State, District 861, Southeast Tech … the list goes on and on,” continued Eddy. “They are very approachable. They are generous. They are very kind, and they are always open to listening. They even have a board room on their new campus that the community can use to have meetings. La Crosse has been fortunate to have the Dahls all these years, and now Winona is able to feel the positive impact of the Dahl’s generosity.”
Winona Family YMCA
“Early in my tenure here, I had the chance to connect with Andrew Dahl to find out what he knew about the community, and about the YMCA. I asked him what he could share as a new leader coming into Winona,” said Derek Madsen, executive director of the Winona Family YMCA. “He had some suggestions that really helped me come on board, but he also had some discussions with me about creating a leadership team and how to develop staff and relationships. He shared the Dahl model of how they accomplish that. When we began our capital campaign we met with the La Crosse YMCA campaign leadership, and had the opportunity to meet with Harry Dahl. Harry helped counsel our campaign leadership to ask questions like: ‘How do we do this? What will it look like? What are things we need to know? How do we build relationships? How do we ask for contributions?’ Harry gave us fantastic advice. It was a perfect first step for our campaign.
“When it comes to giving, the Dahl family walks the walk and talks the talk,” Madsen continued. “They have been great philanthropic supporters of the YMCA. Early in the silent phase of our campaign they gave us an extremely generous challenge grant that really jump started our campaign. It was an astounding contribution, and really helped get our campaign leadership revved up. The Dahl family contributes to the things that are important in our community, and their testament to volunteer leadership is important too. It isn’t just that they give money. They also reach back to the generations of success that they have had, and help share those lessons to help us be successful leaders.”
Great River Shakespeare Festival
“The Dahl family has been engaged with the Great River Shakespeare Festival for many years. They were one of the first members of our leadership circle, and they really helped set the stage, paving the way for other businesses to follow suit,” said GRSF Development Director Kelly Olson. “They have been very supportive of Winona arts in general, and have really played a large part in making Winona a true arts destination.”
“They are amazing,” said GRSF Artistic Director Doug Scholz-Carlson. “Not only are they financially generous with the festival, but they keep on looking for ways to help us make connections in the community. They are very engaged as donors. A lot of patrons will contribute to an organization, but then they don’t really get engaged with it. I see the Dahls in the theater all the time, bringing their friends and family. They are authentically engaged in GSRF in a pretty remarkable way. They are generous, just for the sake of being generous, but they also recognize that an organization like GRSF can be good for the community, and good for local businesses.”
Winona State University
“The Dahl family has had a very positive impact on our football program,” said WSU Athletic Director Eric Shoh. “When we first met with Andrew Dahl and told him about our corporate sponsor program, it didn’t take him very much thought at all. They got involved right away. Currently they provide us with two vehicles that our coaches can drive all over the country on their recruiting trips. Not only is that a huge financial benefit for our program, but it’s also a great marketing tool for us, because the vehicles are wrapped with our colors and the WSU logo. There’s a lot of other ways that the Dahls contribute to our program. If we ever need anything they are just a phone call away. They are in it for the right reason. They want to help support our student athletes. They are tremendous supporters of WSU.”
Mid West Music Fest
“I met with Andrew Dahl for the first time about a year ago, and since then he has become a mentor for me,” said Parker Forsell, managing director of Mid West Music Fest. “He has taken me out to lunch and we have talked about running a business, and the festival. When we decided to expand to La Crosse last year, he was very energized and helpful. Andrew is a member of the Development Committee for the La Crosse portion of the festival. He knows the whole picture of where the festival is at, and has been very complimentary and generous.”
The Dahl team
A key factor in the Dahl family’s core value of giving back to the community is to help inspire generosity in their team. Because of events like the annual “Lube-a Thon,” members of the entire Dahl organization are able to work together to help benefit a deserving nonprofit organization. It builds teamwork, and helps make the Winona community a better place to live.
“I think that in the big picture, the community looks at Dahl Automotive as being an important charitable contributor, and one of the many ways that they help give back to the community is by doing events like our annual Lube-a-Thon,” said Dahl Chevrolet Master Service Technician Nick Kamrowski. “They are raising funds for Family and Children’s Center that are very needed and much appreciated. I think it’s a great way to help out the community, and we as team members are happy to contribute our time to the event. I think that the Lube-a-Thon is great for the team. We get to work together and help each other out. We’re also able to give back to the community and have fun at the same time.”
“The Dahl core value of giving back will continue into the future,” maintained Andrew Dahl. “We’ve got the sixth generation coming up. They’re pretty young yet, and who knows if they are going to want to be in the car business. However, if that’s where their passion leads them, then giving back to the community will be one of the core values that will be passed on to them.”