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Auto dealer shifts into growth mode

Tyson Motors of Shorewood founder Tony Blake said Friday that the Great Recession was hard on the car industry and he wasn't sure he'd survive. But things are looking up now and he's excited about his new Fiat-Maserati dealership due to open in Naperville in February.  |  Cindy Cain~Sun-Times Media

Tyson Motors of Shorewood founder Tony Blake said Friday that the Great Recession was hard on the car industry and he wasn't sure he'd survive. But things are looking up now and he's excited about his new Fiat-Maserati dealership due to open in Naperville in February. | Cindy Cain~Sun-Times Media

During the height of the recession, Tony Blake thought perhaps his days as a car dealership owner were numbered.

Sales plummeted and he feared the entire bottom would drop out of the U.S. auto industry, adding thousands of people to unemployment rolls and leading to more bank failures.

But while it was slow in coming, the recovery has been good for Blake and his two dealerships, Tyson Motors in Shorewood and Kia of Bradley. Better yet, he’s about to add a third dealership to his holdings, and this one has a foreign flair. A dual dealership, Fiat and Maserati of Naperville, is under construction and is expected to open in February at 1540 Ogden Ave.

But these more prosperous, optimistic times follow some pretty dark days during which car sales plummeted and banks loans were hard to get for both consumers and dealers.

At one point, Blake said, he feared that Tyson Motors — the business he started with his father-in-law, Cal Rinehammer, back in 1986 in Joliet — was in jeopardy. But he really worried about Kia of Bradley, a dealership that was under construction just as the Great Recession hit, believing it would be the first to go. When that dealership opened, car sales were in the single digits for months.

“That was 22 months of horrible,” he said. “It was the worst venture I have ever had in my career, in my life.”

But the clouds eventually lifted and sales are up at both dealerships. New car sales at the Shorewood dealership, located at the intersection of Route 52 and the Interstate 55 frontage road, have risen from a low of 890 in 2009 to more than 2,700 this year. Tyson Motors, named after Blake’s son Tyson, sells Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge and Ram vehicles.

Blake said he started seeing a recovery in 2010, but it wasn’t until 2012 that he was willing to say things were better.

Business has been so good this year at Tyson Motors, Blake and fellow owner and general manager Jim Kinney have added a 3-acre paved lot with 250 more parking spots to have enough inventory to keep up with new car sales.

Kinney started with Tyson Motors as a car porter in high school back in 1986. He and company controller Mayra Cisneros have joined Blake as co-owners of the new Naperville dealership.

Blake said that because of the company’s success in Shorewood, Fiat — which merged with Chrysler and owns the Maserati brand — approached him and asked if he would be willing to open one of five prototype Fiat-Maserati dealerships planned for the United States.

The two men agreed, and Naperville was chosen as the right city for the project. The business will be located in a former Chevrolet car dealership that was empty for eight years and is being completely gutted and remodeled.

These changes all have come about as a result of the partnership with Chrysler, he said. But the merger also has benefited Chrysler because it is selling more cars abroad, he said.

“It’s been a wonderful merger, a wonderful relationship,” he said.

The new Naperville dealership also will include several Fiat models, which appeal to buyers looking for high performance and high gas mileage, he said.

Even though he’s excited about the new venture, which may be the first Fiat-Maserati dual dealership to open in the country, Blake, who formerly worked in the sporting goods industry and was an industrial arts teacher, said he’s taking this latest business expansion with a grain of salt.

“We believe the market and the economy are back,” he said. “This is the right time. This is a good venture. But there is always risk.”

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