Scott Fink and his silent partner agreed they were in it for the long haul.
The two were equal partners when they bought a Florida dealership, Clearwater Mitsubishi, in 1989. Seven years later, they bought Clearwater Collision and Clearwater Toyota.
Then, someone wanted to buy them.
In early 1998, the two men answered opportunity's knock. They sold all three businesses to Sonic Automotive Inc. for $17.6 million in cash and stocks.
Fink split the proceeds with his silent partner, whom he declines to name, ending their relationship. Fink stayed on to run the Sonic-owned dealerships. Their 'long haul' turned out to be nine years.
SAME, BUT DIFFERENT
But Fink, 37, has the cash. He's still in charge of two dealerships. Before he sold, he signed each check and opened each piece of mail. Since selling, almost everything is the same.
His new title: general manager. Before he sold, his business card read 'owner.'
'You take a guy who is a dealer, who is the ultimate decision maker, and you give him this new title ... it's negative,' said Fink. 'It's a shot to the ego for some guys.'
Clearwater Mitsubishi sold about 85 new and used cars a month when Fink came aboard. By 1994, it was Mitsubishi's U.S. volume leader, with annual sales of $48.7 million on 1,983 new and used cars and trucks. Profit margins inched up to around 2.5 percent of sales, up from 2 percent a decade before.
Fink's formula was intensive advertising. It caught Sonic's eye.
NOW MORE SELECTIVE
Fink's businesses were the first Sonic bought after it went public last March. The purchase followed Sonic's pattern of targeting a market and buying profitable stores in that area. The public company had 23 dealerships then. It has 40 now.
Sonic spent freely when it was building its stable, said David Fosgate, Sonic's manager of acquisitions. But now that it has its core of dealerships, the rush to buy has cooled. Prices are dropping. Sonic, the eighth-largest new car group in the United States, is becoming more selective.
Fink, who long kept an eye on the market, noticed prices of dealerships dropping in 1997. By the beginning of 1998, he was talking to Sonic.
'I am a good car guy. But I am foremost a businessman. Our intention was to stay for the long haul, but then the window opened,' Fink said.
The freewheeling car dealer who once watched his own money turn to profit now works for a corporation, helping boost shareholder value.
It is hard to say where he will be in five years.
'Currently, I am very happy where I am,' Fink said. 'But I am looking for personal growth. Any aggressive entrepreneur needs to be consistently challenged. It's not the money, it's the challenge.'