‘Always in the family’: Sherrill business now under 4th generation of ownership

Spoerl Automotive

Employees: Four

Founded: 1917

Address: 5026 Sherrill Road, Sherrill, Iowa

Phone: 563-552-2209

Online: spoerlautomotive.com and facebook.com/spoerlautomtive

SHERRILL, Iowa — The building that houses a 106-year-old, four-generation family business in Sherrill has always been a center of activity.

“The building is from 1884,” John Spoerl said. “Originally, it was a manufacturing facility for wagons and sleighs. Sherrill had to have been a thriving community back then, because at one time, it had a wagon factory and three blacksmith shops.”

The building has housed an automotive business since 1917.

John Spoerl, 72, is the third generation of his family working at Spoerl Automotive, where his 40-year-old son Tom Spoerl serves as current majority owner and fourth generation.

“(Joining the family business) was something I wanted to do and planned on doing,” Tom said. “(Working on cars) just comes naturally to me. It’s what I grew up doing.”

Tom’s great-grandfather, Paul Spoerl, established Spoerl Automotive in 1917.

“It’s always been in the family,” Tom said. “My great-grandpa worked for his brother-in-law out of this building, when it was a blacksmith shop (prior to 1917). Then they started tinkering with and selling small engines.”

Tom said the engine tinkering eventually led to Paul Spoerl selling cars. The business originally sold car brands such as Crow-Elkhart, Durant Motors and Star.

“All kinds of different off brands that you never hear about anymore,” Tom said.

Spoerl Automotive’s first evolution came after more than a decade of selling cars.

“In 1928, we became a Chevrolet dealer,” Tom said.

The second generation of the family, represented by Tom’s grandfather, David Spoerl, continued selling Chevrolets. John Spoerl then assumed ownership of the business. Throughout the decades, the business also offered a variety of auto repairs while remaining a fixture in the community.

“We have been tied with Sherrill for a long time,” John said. “Being a business in a small town, you have to be part of the community. You know everybody and everybody knows you.”

The family’s links to Chevrolet were severed in 2010. General Motors filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in 2009. One of the consequences of the proceeding was the automaker cutting ties to more than 1,000 local dealerships. Spoerl Automotive was one of those dealerships.

“We lost the Chevrolet franchise, but kept going as an auto repair shop and selling used cars,” Tom said.

The used car business dropped after the COVID-19 pandemic. Automakers closed factories to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and the drop in production of new cars lead to inventory shortages in the new and used car markets.

“(The pandemic) messed up the used-car market and made them harder to get,” Tom said. “Also, we’ve been busy enough in the shop that (used cars) became less of a priority.”

Tom saw the changes up close.

“I worked here growing up and then went off to college,” he said.

Tom attended Des Moines Area Community College in Ankeny, Iowa, where he took the General Motors Automotive Service Education Program.

“I had a pretty solid base (of knowledge) from growing up around cars all the time, but (the college program) was a good way to learn a lot.”

Tom bought into the family business in 2017.

“It’s unique to have four generations (at one business) and to have been in business for so long,” John said. “It’s been nice to keep it in the family.”

Tom is now the majority owner, with his parents continuing to own a portion.

“We don’t do any body work — we’re more mechanical and electrical diagnosis and repair,” Tom said. “For the most part, we stay busy for the majority of the year. We get a ton of support from the community. If it wasn’t for the support of the local people, the business wouldn’t be able to be here. There wouldn’t be enough work coming from outside the community to support it.”

Tom said among the challenges of operating an automotive business are the advances in technology — some of which occur with increasing frequency.

“You can learn new stuff fairly quickly but then, a couple of model years later, things have changed and you have to figure it out again.”

Tom’s vision for the future of the business includes a possible expansion.

“Going forward, we will hopefully get an addition on the building that will give us a little extra space and maybe make things a little easier,” he said.

Beyond the business, the Spoerl family’s ties to Sherrill extend to longtime service with the community’s volunteer fire department.

“My grandpa was one of the original 10 members in 1951, my dad started in 1971 and I started in 2001,” Tom said. “Supposedly my great-grandpa was one of the financial backers who helped get the Fire Department going.”