Everyday people: In the driver’s seatTom Heffernan has had a business-oriented mindset since he was a teenager. Employed at his uncle’s St. Paul used car dealership when he was 17 years old, Heffernan was tasked with washing cars before they were handed over to their new owners. He earned $5 for each car the dealership sold.
By: Sarah Gorvin, The Republican Eagle
Tom Heffernan has had a business-oriented mindset since he was a teenager. Employed at his uncle’s St. Paul used car dealership when he was 17 years old, Heffernan was tasked with washing cars before they were handed over to their new owners. He earned $5 for each car the dealership sold.
“It didn’t really take me long to figure the more cars we sold, the more money I made,” he said.
So Heffernan took it upon himself to keep the dealership open while his uncle went to lunch. And when a man came in looking to buy a car, Heffernan didn’t hesitate.
“The first car I sold was a ’29 Model A for $39. That was in 1957,” he said.
Fifty-five years later, Heffernan is still selling cars. Except now, he’s the owner of Tom Heffernan Ford, Inc., in Lake City and has been for the last 40 years.
“It’s fun seeing people getting a car,” Heffernan said of his job. “They’re all excited and they feel great.”
Still, Heffernan wasn’t always sure he wanted to be a car salesman. Right after the Korean War ended and when Heffernan was 20 years old, he was drafted.
“It was a mopping up operation,” he said of his time in Korea.
Heffernan served his time as a military policeman; one of his duties was to guard the U.S. soldiers’ bodies as they were shipped home. It was a job that piqued his interest in mortuary science.
So, with an eye on enrolling in the University of Minnesota to study mortuary science, Heffernan took an aptitude test once he finished his military duties. He thought the test would tell him he was well-suited to be an undertaker.
“When I got done with it, I was told I should be a salesman,” Heffernan said with a laugh.
That was all the push he needed to go back to St. Paul to sell cars. But Heffernan didn’t return to his uncle’s dealership.
“I went to a bigger dealership to advance my career,” he said.
Heffernan would spend nearly 20 years working as a manager for Grand Avenue Ford before deciding he wanted to own his own Ford garage. He knew he didn’t have enough money saved up to buy a large dealership, so he started looking in smaller cities.
“I knew I wanted to be in a pretty town and by water,” he said.
Which is how he chose Lake City.
Now 41 years later, the 78-year-old Heffernan is still running his dealership on Lakeshore Drive.
“We’re selling to the grandchildren of our original customers,” he said.
Heffernan credits a lot of his success to his 15 employees, many of which have been with him for decades.
“They’re all good people – hard workers, family people,” he said. “If I didn’t have my personnel, I wouldn’t survive.”
Heffernan also gets a lot of help from his wife Marie, who travels the country buying used cars for him.
As for the future, Heffernan said one of his five daughters might eventually take over for him. But, he added that he’s not going anywhere any time soon.
“I’m never going to retire,” he said. “I’ll work until I’m 100 years old.”
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