Lillestol bought his store in 2002 after working for a Grand Forks, N.D., dealer, first as finance manager at a Ford store and later as general manager of a Chrysler dealership.
Unlike many of his dealer peers, Lillestol didn't grow up in what he calls a "car family." When he graduated from college, he had his sights set on becoming a stockbroker. Instead, he took the finance manager job at Hansen Ford.
"I didn't think I'd go the retail route, but it drew you in," Lillestol said.
Lillestol's path to ownership began two decades ago when he was managing the Chrysler dealership.
He was 31 and set a goal of owning a dealership by the time he was 40.
He began cold-calling dealers to ask whether they had thought about selling. He worked with a commercial broker, who periodically alerted him to stores for sale.
After learning about the Thief River Falls store, he went to his atlas. "I wanted to make sure the community this dealership was in was in bold print," he said, hoping to avoid a slow-business town.
When he visited the dealership, then run by its third-generation owner, his first impression was that the area "looked sleepy."
The community of 8,400 people about 325 miles northwest of Minneapolis had only two other dealerships -- one Chrysler, the other Chevrolet -- but Thief River Falls was the county seat, and its name was in bold on the map.
The Ford store had a gravel lot and the outdoor lights were fastened to utility poles. Fewer than 20 new and used vehicles were on the lot, Lillestol said.
"I just thought, looking at it, it just needed some energy. It needed some passion. It needed someone who'd be there and be a cheerleader," Lillestol said. "I just felt I could do that."
With some financial help from his then-boss, Jim Hansen, Lillestol bought Tunberg Motor Co. in February 2002 and renamed it Thief River Ford. He was 41 years old.
"When I first came to this town, I knew no one. Zip. Zilch," Lillestol said. Soon after arriving, he began sprucing up the store.
He spent about $250,000 to replace the gravel with pavement, install new lights in the lot, replace the Ford sign, put new lighting in the repair shop and make other improvements. Last year, he spent another $75,000 for a new roof.
He expanded the service department and persuaded Ford to increase the hourly labor rate it paid his store for warranty repairs from $42 to $61, a move that helped boost his earning potential.
Within the first year, the dealership was profitable, Lillestol said. And sales had increased.
Before he took over, the store sold about 18 new and used vehicles a month, he said. Now, it sells an average of 13 new and 18 used vehicles a month.
"We're bigger but not ginormous," Lillestol said. Many of his sales are trucks, given the store's location in northern Minnesota, he said, and his nearest Ford-brand competitor is 41 miles away.
Still, having his business dependent on one automaker carries some risk, Lillestol said.
As a hedge against such a risk, many dealers have added brands, he said.
But Lillestol's hedge is his service department. Thief River Ford offers customers every fourth oil change for free for the life of a vehicle, a promotion that has helped build customer loyalty.
"We're finding those customers coming back for service," he said. "When they need new brakes or tires, we're the ones doing the brakes. We're the ones doing the tires."
Lillestol said the learning curve for a first-time dealership owner can be steep at first, and the high costs of starting a store can be prohibitive for many first-timers looking to get into the business.
"When I go to shows, I find I have more in common with the 80-year-old [dealers] than people my own age," he said. "They are the ones who started their businesses."
And yet, his children don't appear interested in taking over the business. So when he retires, he said, he'll likely have to sell the store.
Has he thought about expanding? "If something came along and is small enough, then maybe I'd be interested," he said.
"But I don't think about it. I'm happy were I am."