Sure the space is small – a couple of desks and two upholstered chairs by the window take up the majority of Tonka Auto & Truck’s indoor real estate – but the impression is that Sean Tierney’s sizeable energy would shrink even the largest of spaces.
Tierney might also best represent the axiom that a good businessman can sell almost anything - and run any kind of business - if he’s got the character and drive to do it because Tierney will be the first admit that “by know means” does he have a passion for selling cars. For Tierney, the fun lies in the challenge native to owning a used car dealership, namely building a business that generates and maintains good customer relations in an industry that sometimes gets a bad rep.
“He made it happen because he never thought it was going to happen,” offered Jen Pringle, Tonka’s co-founder and office manager, before Tierney came in.
Indeed, at half past one, a hello and a handshake later and Tierney does walk in, fresh from an auction, a “Tonka Truck” ballcap atop his head, and it’s “I love stress, I love taking on a challenge. I love being told I can’t do something and proving everybody wrong.”
Tierney bought the site at Bartlett and Shoreline, formerly the Mainstreet USA dealership, and spent two months overhauling the shop to rebrand it with the Tonka Auto image. He and Pringle opened its doors to customers last November.
From the start, Tierney and co. have advertised what might be the biggest difference between Tonka Auto and the previous dealer. Streamers of red and gold triangle flags, hung up since the get-go, still draw attention to the banner outside that says Tonka offers financing on the vehicles it sells.
That service has allowed Tonka Auto to stock cars that Mainstreet maybe couldn’t have: customers to Mainstreet generally could find a car in the $2,500-$5,000 range; at Tonka, cars are more likely to reach toward $10,000.
Tierney said the mileage and model year drive what he’ll buy at auction; cars younger than 10 years and with fewer than 100,000 miles on them are more appealing to the company’s lenders.
And his customers? They’re local and from two hours away, said Pringle, and their wants and needs run the gamut: BMW, Cadillac, Toyota... “Everything we bring in - boom! it’s gone in a week or two,” said Tierney.
Already, the pair are meeting the challenges of growth. “This is building fast, probably faster than most car lots build,” he said. Since November, Tonka has contracted with Jason Gilhoi to help on the financing end and hired one other employee to help manage the 25-car lot. And while Tonka doesn’t trade in repairs, Tierney does have a mechanic who will service the dealership’s cars and those cars purchased from Tonka.
“You have to create that name for yourself - what services you provide and how people feel about you when you come in and remember you when you leave.” said Pringle, attributing the lot’s success to how its customers are treated.
“There’s a million moving parts in this business,” said Tierney, adding offhand, “Today I was standing out with a bunch of guys, raising my hand and buying cars!”
And not too long ago he was calling at tattoo parlors: Tonka’s typeface out front is the work of an artist based in Indonesia, a kid Tierney said he found through a tattooist’s tip and whose work he’d like to commission for Tonka Auto t-shirts in the future.
Tierney has been in the dealership industry for the past seven years, first at Freeway Ford and more recently in helping smaller mom and pop dealerships with their management and business strategies, successfully aiding at least one Twin Cities dealership in making a U-turn away from mismanagement and toward profitability.
“Now I get my own problem!” joked Tierney of having his own dealership.
Tiereny had only good things to say about running the business, from the opening days to the hurdle of rebranding to what he sees next for Tonka, at one point nearly falling from his chair as he gestured to the white board behind his desk that details the 22 cars sold at Tonka last month - a high turnover for any independent dealership, let alone one limited to 25 on the lot at any given time.
But Tierney said Mound is prime for a small dealership like his – there isn’t any competition ‘til you hit Maple Plain, where the former Mainstreet owner reopened. But more than that, Tierney has a fondness for the city of his boyhood recreation.
Though he grew up near St. Paul in Little Canada, Minn., Tierney said he remembers coming to Mound for pond hockey games, and after living here eight years ago he said he has always felt the itch to come back.
“It’s like a middle-aged party,” said Tierney of Mound. “Everybody that has their [stuff] together, they move out here, and you can go out and be a child on the weekends and enjoy yourself but everybody knows how to go to bed on Sunday and get back up for work on Monday.”