Ernst Auto building
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Ernst Auto Center of Columbus truly lives up to the term “family business.” They are a family-owned business that’s been selling to a couple of generations of Nebraska families since 1960.

John Ernst, the current owner/dealer principal at Ernst, said the business got started by his grandfather.

“My grandfather, a one-time grocery store owner, got the business started in 1960 and shortly after that, my father joined in,” Ernst said. “They started out selling GMC, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac vehicles. Over the years, they added and got rid of some franchises, and they bought some stores out to get to this point. We actually celebrate our 60th birthday in May of 2020. We’re pretty proud of that.”

Ernst said they’ve gotten to this point thanks to a philosophy of “selling one car at a time.” The dealership has been in several different locations over the span of 59-plus years. The family built a brand-new facility in 1966 and added the Pontiac and Toyota franchises. In fact, they were just the second Toyota franchise in the entire state of Nebraska.

“While I don’t know exactly how many cars they sold back in the 1960s, I do know we’ve grown from a handful of employees back then to roughly 100 employees, two locations, and a Bodyshop in a third location,” Ernst said. “I, myself, jumped into the family business back in 1986.

“My dad asked me to come and sell cars for him. I’ve had a number of different positions here throughout my career. He asked me to come to sell cars and I fell in love with the business, even though I didn’t really grow up in it. I had brothers that worked in certain departments, but I was brand new to the car business when I got here.”

Over the years, Ernst Auto Sales has seen a lot of changes.

“It’s changed in every way,” General Manager Brent Bond said. “In the last 20 years, we’ve gone from strictly landline phone calls and fax machine interactions with customers to interactions that completely revolve around applications and smartphones. People haven’t changed, but the way we communicate with them certainly has.”

Bond said consumers are much more educated about cars and trucks because of the availability of information. They come into the dealership basically knowing what they want to do. “Honestly, they have the option to do business anywhere,” Bond said. “There are thousands of car dealers who are more than happy to help them. People decide to do business with us because of the people we have here.

“The quality of service we provide as individuals is what sets us apart from all the other dealerships. We had a lady in the dealership recently that told us some of the first cars she ever bought were from John’s grandfather, Les Ernst. We’ve had many other customers tell us things like ‘my dad or my grandparents always bought their cars here.’ Those sort of family ties still exist, even in today’s fancy electronic landscape that we live in.”

Ernst and Bond both said it’s an honor that multiple family generations trust them with their business.

“People have that trust in us, and we try everything we can do not to let them down,” Ernst said.

Doing business in an agricultural state like Nebraska doesn’t go unnoticed at Ernst Auto Center. Agriculture is an important part of the family business and clientele.

“It is in every way,” Ernst said. “At the end of the day, we are an ag community. We have vehicles that are right up their alley.

“We sell heavy-duty pickups for farm work,” Ernst said, “but we also have luxury cars or SUVs for their families. Agriculture has been very important to us since the business began and we have some great farm families that we’ve done business with over the years.

“Back when my grandfather and father were getting into the business, they would actually go out to farms to call on the families. They would take pickups out to each farm. Today, with the advent of the internet, that’s changed a whole lot. However, if someone wants us to go out to their farm, we’d be more than happy to.”

Chad Smith can be reached at editorial@midwestmessenger.com.

Chad started out as a radio broadcaster for 22 years, then made the switch to full-time freelance journalism. He grew up working on the family dairy farm, and enjoys staying busy with his wife and six children. Reach him at editorial@midwestmessenger.com.