“It’s been an interesting ride.”
That’s how Larry Kelsey describes owning a business that sells, repairs and restores Corvettes and other classic cars.
When he and his friend Bill Kotzum opened Corvette Mike Midwest in Burr Ridge in January 2005, it was a second career for both men.
They chose the location, at 60 Shore Drive, because of its visibility, with an estimated 135,000 motorists on Interstate 55 driving by everyday.
“He handles a lot of the sales piece and I handle a lot of the service piece,” said Kelsey, who has known Kotzum for about 30 years.
The business is not a licensed Chevrolet dealership, so they do not sell Corvettes straight from the factory. But some are almost brand new. They typically sell six to 10 cars a month.
Sales are better than they were five years ago, but have not reached their level before the recession.
“2008 was not a pretty year. We went from selling eight to 12 cars a month to zero,” Kelsey said.
“If we were putting kids through college or didn’t have wives that worked,” the situation would have been a lot worse, Kelsey said.
They got through the lean years, but it cost them.
“We both reached in our pockets a second time,” Kelsey said.
The first time was when they converted the empty warehouse from a “black box” into a showroom and repair shop of 11,000 square feet. They started their inventory in 2005 by acquiring cars they learned of through word of mouth, car shows or newspaper ads.
They sell more than Corvettes, as they take some cars as trade-ins. They also sell some cars on consignment.
“A 1953 Corvette, for example, will run $300,000. I don’t want to put that much on a line of credit,” Kelsey said.
The business also sells wheels, parts and accessories, and also services vehicles, doing everything from an oil change to full restorations.
Two of their mechanics have more than 40 years experience, but Kelsey said he would love to have another “top-notch” mechanic.
“I put all these ads out there and I can’t get qualified help,” he said.
He pitches in with simple maintenance jobs, “when they let me,” Kelsey said.
“I put myself through school tearing engines apart and putting them back together,” he said.
He graduated Purdue University with a degree in industrial management and information technology. He worked in IT and manufacturing systems for most of his career, which included positions with Cherry Electric in Waukegan, Kemper Financial and Northrup Electronics.
Fast forward to 2004, when Kelsey retired as a partner with the audit and tax firm KPMG, but was not ready to stop working. Kotzum, who had a 25-year career in the automotive parts industry, also was looking for a change. They considered their options, including opening an Ace Hardware store, a chicken wing franchise and doing construction in Florida.
But then Kelsey got a flier from Corvette Mike, as in Mike Vietro who started the company that sells and services sports cars in Anaheim, Calif.
“He was looking to open some franchises, one being in the Chicago area,” Kelsey said.
“It sounded like an exciting opportunity,” Kotzum said. “I love old cars.”
Both had visited Vietro’s Corvette Mike in California numerous times.
Kelsey’s favorite car of all he has owned was a white 1960 Corvette with frost blue interior.
When they first started the business in Burr Ridge, they needed cars to fill the showroom, so Kelsey parked his ’60 Corvette inside with a big price tag on it. It sold anyway.
In their lifetimes, Kotzum personally has owned about a half-dozen Corvettes and Kelsey owned three.
Kelsey and Kotzum say, they and the bank own about 20 of them.
The best advice they got from Vietro, Kelsey said, was “Don’t fall in love with the cars.”Tags: Corvette Mike Midwest