by Syreeta Herbert
Building a Corvette kingdom takes more trials and tools than many realize.
“The harder I work, the luckier I am,” says Tony of the renowned Tony’s Corvette Shop. This renowned quote is often repeated and revised by innovators of many industries from Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Goldwyn. Tony has earned his rights to commanding the phrase.
He now manages tens of thousands of square feet dedicated to Chevrolet’s famed luxury sports car, but the business began in his home. And the story isn’t that simple. When the shop started in 1989, Tony was a full-time accountant working the 3rd shift at IBM managing payroll. He then went on to oversee a $989m contract with top security clearance. A self-described “bull in a china closet,” he was likable however did not receive the commendation appropriate for his level of aptitude. For a contract that could often be mismanaged into $20-30m overages, he ran it within $50k of the budget in his first year.
Despite his competence and a year’s head up to his boss to begin training a backup for him in case anything happened, he was told “a lot of people can do your job, you don’t have to worry about that.” A year later, when he stepped in to resign after 17 years, that remark morphed into “we can’t let you leave.” After promotion offers and several declines, he learned the truth: his client wanted him to be in charge of the entire federal contract and threatened to pull business if he ever left the company. He had a tremendous relationship with the client, even surpassing the one of the company president. In the end, Tony worked part time on his own terms until the contract was complete, but the experience left an impression.
Being straight with everyone was the suggestion he made in his exit interview after years of being a number 1 employee that was treated like a 2. “If you suck, I’d tell you that you suck.” And he’d tell each excellent employee the same and reap the benefits. Accountability is paramount.
The ideals that he honed at IBM are present in his business today. “I’m not for sale,” Tony commands. His business is based on fairness and honesty. “If I’m going to buy you a car, I treat it like it’s going to be my car.” He reviews every vehicle thoroughly, even test driving them himself, and advises his customers with written notes that they review and sign off on before moving forward. This evaluation system has become his calling card. If he advises against a vehicle, it’s based on this benchmark: “If you gave me the car for free and the contingency was I had to do all of the repairs, I wouldn’t do it.” His deep Corvette wisdom allows him a unique gauge. “Knowledge is valuable,” says Tony. “I know the pedigree of what to buy.”
Combine those ethics with his childhood experience and you’ll better grasp how Tony is a success. His father reared him with an understanding of responsibility. Because his dad managed various organizations, Tony grew up assisting and always took ownership over his tasks. So now when he and his team service your car, you know it’s overseen by a refined eye. There’s no room for complacent acceptance of what seems to be ‘good enough.’ “No, it’s really not,” Tony remarks, because he knows going back to fix neglected issues is a monumental task.
His team backs his approach. Most have worked with him for 20+ years – 2 having been there since the beginning. Establishing his formal business in 1989, Andrew has worked alongside Tony since day 1 and Eddie began 6 months later. For perspective, Tony himself began tinkering with cars at age 16. He and his friend Dan worked for Dan’s father and made enough money for Dan to purchase a ‘64 Corvette. Despite his dad proclaiming, “you can’t afford a Corvette!” Tony followed up with his a year later. (He still owns it today!) A fellow Corvette lover and influential teacher of Dan’s worked on cars and both young men helped him service his client base on weekends, working their way up from grunt work to mechanics. What began with cleaning wheels with Q-tips has graduated into a successful business.
Along with running what is likely the largest Corvette dedicated facility, he also boasts an inimitable library of reference material including 2 million photos organized by VIN and part. He authored “The Definitive 1963 Corvette RPO Z06” and holds over 360 Bloomington Top Flight and/or Bloomington Gold awards. Now with enough mastery to mentor NCRS judges, he builds every job to a 94 standard or above and will refuse work that won’t meet the mark. If you ask Tony what drives his success, he says it’s the mentality. Regardless of his accomplishments, he’s still always looking to learn “because that’s how you build a better car.”
If you’re more curious about that aforementioned mentality, consider this: Tony drove a $35 car every day for 4 years when he started his business. With $100 total invested, his wife entertained his 60’s fuel injected Corvette purchase with the remaining funds. When he moved his shop from his home in 1997, he did so with 900 customers. When he left IBM at age 39, he described the stress of the decision and “many sleepless nights,” which some may deem ironic after committing all of those years to a 4:30a-midnight work day while splitting time between his day job and the Corvette shop.
This is the type of business you’re buying into when you pull up at Tony’s. The shop is located in a building he always drove by with his wife and affirmed he would buy one day. Integrity and grind enabled that dream to be realized. Naturally, cars almost always cost more to fix than what they’re worth. But if you’re looking for a guy who balances sentiment and good business, Tony’s is the perfect place to park your Corvette.
Learn more about Tony’s Corvette Shop and their services at tonyscorvetteshop.com.
We at Rankin are huge fans of community: the home grown, the hard-working, & the humanitarian. Extra points if it involves automobiles!
Being in the auto business since the 1940s, you can only imagine the sites we’ve seen and the people we’ve met along the way. Our journey and passions have inspired us to highlight local businesses and tradesmen that we enjoy collaborating with. So we’re introducing “Rankin Ride-Along!”
“Rankin Ride-Along” is a series dedicated to collaborators and specialists in the vehicle industry. It will feature a series of choice professionals that we’ve enjoyed working with over the years. As a business begun and mapped by way of a skill and service based reputation, we hope to keep the appeal of craftsmanship & commonwealth in the driver’s seat.