When Gerry Kowalsky started working as a car salesman in 1957 the average cost of a new Ford was between $1,800 and $3,400 and gas was 31 cents a gallon.
“I started selling cars on my 35th birthday,” said Kowalsky, who has worked at Guelph's Olympic Honda for the past 34 years. “I read an ad in the paper that Ford was looking for sales people. I got on the bus and went down to King Street in Kitchener. The Ford dealer was right across the road from the bank at King and Sheldon.”
He took the job and began a career that spans more than six decades.
“It will be 63 years on March 19,” he said. “It is so easy to remember when you start on your birthday.”
He has eased the pace a bit since his younger days, but has no plans to retire.
“No, to retire is ridiculous,” he said. “On my next birthday I will be 98. That’s next month. There is no reason to quit if you keep doing your thing in this business and you are wanted and appreciated by the people that you work for.”
Kowalsky was born in Doon in 1922, seven years before the Great Depression.
“I was married in 1942,” he said. “My wife’s name was Amelia. She passed away in ‘92.”
He enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces at the age of 19.
“I was in for four and half years with the service corps in the army,” he said. “When you come out of the service they try to put you into the factories to work. I didn’t want to work in a factory. Everything back then was a rubber factory. I said no thank you. I’ll find my own job and I went into the building trade.”
He worked in construction for about 10 years but started looking for a change as his 35th birthday approached.
“The building trade was starting to go down and I said I should make a trade in for something new,” he said. “I saw the ad from Kaye Ford. I applied for the job and came home with a new Ford.”
He wasted no time moving cars off the Kaye Ford lot.
“The first car I ever sold was a used car - a Buick,” he said. “I worked for Kaye Ford for 23 years. I was the used car manager there.”
His work philosophy is time-tested and true.
“You have to build up a clientele,” said Kowalsky. “Once people trust you and know you, you don’t have to shake the bushes. It’s all about integrity.”
His reputation and customers have followed him throughout his career.
“I spent 30 years with Ford and approximately two years with GM,” he said. “It will be 34 years with Honda. That’s longevity, eh?”
Kowalsky has seen a lot of changes in the business since the 50s.
“Shoppers today are so much more informed when they come in for a car,” he said. “They have the internet. They know the price of the car. They know more than the salesman knows. It’s not the same. It’s not the same at all.”
He doesn’t own a computer or a cell phone and has no plans on getting either.
“If it is a TV it has to be 51 inches or bigger but they spend most of their day staring at the five-inch screen on their phone,” said Kowalsky. “I see people in restaurants and they don’t even look up to talk to each other.”
He is an inspiration to his fellow workers at Olympic Honda.
“Gerry is my hero,” said workmate Richard Kocyla. “He is my touchstone to my parent’s generation. He never misses work. His day off is Thursday but one week he didn’t come in on a Wednesday. I was concerned but happy to see him when he came in the next day. I said 'Gerry, what are you doing here? Isn’t Thursday your day off?' He said, 'yes but I missed Wednesday.'”
Kowalsky has become an extended member of the Brewis family and was good friends with Charles Brewis who opened Olympic Honda in 1973. Brewis’s son David took over ownership after his father died in 2005.
“They phone me if the weather is bad,” said Kowalsky. “You better not come in and if you want to come in we will send someone to pick you up. That’s the kind of rapport we have.”
Brewis is helping Kowalsky celebrate his birthday.
“Oh certainly, I am always celebrating,” said Kowalsky. “I may possibly go for dinner at Golf's Steak House, that’s my special place. I love Golf's. I was there last year for my birthday with David and his wife.”
Kowalsky feels at home on the car lot and plans to spend many more years there.
“I think that’s the whole story,” he said. “It’s what you get out of life. The reason I don’t think about retiring is that I am welcome here anytime they want me to come in. It’s not what I produce today. I’m not paid for what I do. It’s for what I know. I always try to help people. That’s the story.”