How Scott Fink became the head of an auto empire in Tampa Bay
Scott Fink has come a long way, in a lot of ways.
He was raised in the projects of Brooklyn, New York, and through what he calls “being opportunistic,” has amassed an auto empire here in the Tampa Bay area—the Fink Auto Group.
Fink Auto Group includes Genesis of New Port Richey, Volkswagen of New Port Richey, Hyundai of Wesley Chapel, Genesis of Wesley Chapel, Mazda of Wesley Chapel and Chevrolet of Wesley Chapel. The crown jewel is Hyundai of New Port Richey, which has been the highest-volume Hyundai dealership in the United States for eight consecutive years.
In March, Fink Auto Group was acquired by Lithia Motors, but Fink retained ownership of Volkswagen of Wesley Chapel and the soon-to-open Subaru of Wesley Chapel.
With a total of $430 million in revenue in 2020, Fink admits he’s come a long way from his humble beginnings. He is still the same guy, just with much cooler wheels and toys.
Fink is the third-born, of three boys. His parents grew up as orphans and met as children. They married when they came of age, his father 20 and his mother 18. They raised their family in Brooklyn, in the projects outside of Sheepshead Bay.
“My father was a blue-collar guy. It’s not like we were hungry, but money was always a topic of conversation,” Fink says. “And the topic of conversation was how we didn’t have any.”
His father bought the family’s first home, in Rockland County, New York, when he was 52 years old.
Fink attended Wagner College, in Staten Island, New York, on a track scholarship and thousands in student loans. He studied accounting, which made sense to him, as he was pretty good at math, he says.
His parents moved to Florida when Fink was a sophomore in college.
“I was caught between a rock and a hard place because my mother said, ‘If you don’t get a job, you’ll just have to move to Florida, to Delray Beach,” Fink says, adding it was a retirement community. “I was like, well, that’s not happening.”
Fink ended up with a job at Brooklyn Union Gas, which at the time was the largest independent utility serving all of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.
His job paid $19,200—“big money,” he says of the time.
“You go through these series of interviews,” Fink recalls. “They decided I should go into auditing. They said, ‘If we put him in staff accounting, he will likely kill himself, and if we put him on financial accounting, he will kill everybody else.’ So I went into auditing, which got me in front of people, which is kind of my thing—more than anything else.”
He studied and took the certified public accountant’s exam. During that time, you had to pass multiple parts to earn the designation. He passed only one.
“I was like, I don’t want to do this,” Fink says. “I made the decision then that I was going to try to leave and get a different job.”
Fink would scour the New York Times, every Sunday, looking for potential new career paths. For a year, he sent handwritten cover letters and résumés to would-be employers.
“I finally got a bite. All it said was a ‘large automobile manufacturer,’ ” he says.
He had to travel to Teterboro, New Jersey, for the interview, which he later found out was for Ford Motor Co.
“I interview and I think it goes great. I’m just so pumped up. It was for the sales and marketing division,” he says. “But they filled the job internally.”
Down the hall, he heard, Lincoln Mercury was hiring. He got that job, and it changed the trajectory of his career forever.
He did well in this new role and was promoted multiple times, going from making $25,000 a year to $52,000 a year, over the duration of three years.
“I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was thinking, at this rate, I’d be making $1 million a year,” he says with a laugh.
The company promoted Fink to his first management position, where he ran the regional marketing department for the Lincoln Mercury division, for the east coast.
“I realized, in short order, that I was never going to be able to rise up to the highest levels of management in the company,” Fink says. “I was smart enough to know that there was going to be a cap on my career growth. And I knew this management job that they promoted me to, the next move would be to Detroit.”
One of the cool things, Fink says, about the job he was in was he would get to meet car dealers, help and support them to improve their operations and build relationships with them through the territories he oversaw.
“Part of my role was to sell cars wholesale to the dealers from the factory, but really it was to build relationships and show them ways they could improve their business,” Fink says. “Factories build the cars, but they don’t sell the car, they sell them to the dealer.”
Fink had befriended a successful Lincoln Mercury dealer; his name is Michael Cohen. His family ran a car dealership business, but he was considering branching out on his own, and he wanted Fink to come work with him.
“So, we talked about it and then we had to go find a deal. We’re talking all the time. You know, we have no cellphones, right? So, I’m going to phone booths on the side of the road. Remember 100 years ago, you had, like, a beeper?” Fink recalls, laughing.
They started eyeing up a group of dealerships in Dallas. Nothing materialized on that.
“Then one day, Mike was going to play golf with the senior vice president for Mitsubishi Motors, Rick Lepley,” Fink says. “Rick says to Mike, ‘We’ve got this dealership in Clearwater, Florida. The owner is not happy with Mitsubishi and wants out.’ Then, the owner basically said, if we don’t help find him a buyer for the business, ‘I am going to padlock the door and close it down.’ ”
Fink says when he heard of the opportunity from Cohen, he couldn’t locate Clearwater on a map.
After visiting the Clearwater franchise, Cohen and Fink went all in. Fink was the 10-percent “equity guy,” as he calls it. They closed the deal in July 1989.
Fink says, in the beginning, he didn’t know what he was doing.
“I had never managed anyone or sold anything,” he says. “For like the first six months, all I did was watch.”
The business took a hit the first year, but, in year two, the business went from losing $1 million a year to breaking even.
“I learned that my accounting background was helpful, because I could read and understand a financial statement, expense control, margins and inventory,” he says.
In year three, the business started to make money and grow. For the year, Clearwater Mitsubishi finished as the largest volume Mitsubishi dealership in America, outselling all 700-plus dealerships.
By raising the profile of the store, and going all-in on radio advertisements, the dealership was back to being profitable and the Fink automobile empire was about to get much larger.
Carlisle Lincoln Mercury, the No. 1 Lincoln Mercury dealer in the U.S., had a buy-sell agreement with the Toyota dealership next to Fink’s dealership on U.S. Highway 19., and the underlying real estate which, effectively, would make Carlisle Fink’s new landlord.
“In the agreement that my partner put together for the Mitsubishi franchise, he insisted on having the ‘right of first refusal’ on the Toyota dealership, which was owned by the same individual. We had 15 days to match the Carlisle deal. He asks me, ‘What do you think?’ I’m like, ‘We’ve got to figure out a way to do it,’ ” Fink says.
In 1996, Cohen and Fink bought the Toyota dealership for about $1 million “blue sky” and the associated real estate and buildings.
Once we got operations improved and processes in place, we were selling about 500 new and used vehicles a month and making really good money,” Fink says.
Around this time, Fink was about 35 years old, and Cohen and Fink were looking for an exit strategy with their joint businesses, the two stores and the underlying real estate.
“I had lunch with a good friend, Ken Marks [another major auto dealer in the Tampa Bay area], and he’s going to sell his large Ford dealership to Sonic Automotive, another big consolidator at the forefront,” Fink says. “[Marks] agrees to give me an intro and I wind up talking to the guys at Sonic. We put a deal together and sell the two businesses to Sonic.”
Cohen and Fink sold their business for 10 times what they bought it for, Fink says.
“I had a three-year employment agreement with [Sonic]. And I was going to run their stores here and take on a leadership role within this fledgling new public company,” Fink says.
Eventually, Fink sold his occupied real estate to a real estate investment trust. He made it two years into his Sonic contract and resigned.
“I didn’t like it,” Fink says. “The analogy I use is, you’re a business owner and if you want to sit in your office wearing your gym clothes, no one is going to tell you that you can’t. Well, now I come in and I buy your company and I tell you that you can’t do that.”
At this point in his career, Fink realized he was a full-fledged entrepreneur.
“I was 37 and I had accumulated about $5.5 million and was like, ‘Check!’ I never have to work again,” he says with a laugh.
He and his wife considered moving back to the northeast. They even put an offer on a house. But it wasn’t meant to be.
“[My wife] got up in the middle of the night, at 3 o’clock in the morning, and I’m sitting in the chair. She’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I can’t sleep,’ ” Fink recalls. “She says, ‘We’re not moving to New Jersey, are we?’ ”
A handful of months later, Fink got a phone call from a previous employee that used to run the Toyota store for Fink. He requested a meeting.
Hyundai was preparing to award a franchise in New Port Richey and he wanted Fink to partner with him on it.
Fink trekked up to Saddlebrook to meet with the corporate team and discuss the opportunity.
“I remember saying to the guy, ‘Look, all these other dealers out there are great dealers. Here’s the difference. When you call the Hyundai store in New Port Richey, I’m going to pick up the phone. These guys are never going to pick up the phone because they have 10 stores. They’re never going to come here. I’m going to be there 80 hours a week, every week. I will drive the business there,’” Fink says.
Fink ended up with 14 dealerships.
Fink has been married to his wife, Kathy, for 31 years and has five children, including a set of twins.
He doesn’t play much golf, but he and his family do enjoy their vacation home in Asheville, North Carolina.
The Fink family owns a beautiful home in South Tampa, which they considered downsizing, but with five children, the large home is a necessity in hosting the family every Sunday.
“We realized that [downsizing] would be a big mistake. Because, you know, every Sunday we get the kids to come here. Everybody comes here for family dinner,” he says.
Fink also has a philanthropic heart. He’s the current board chair of Berkeley Preparatory School and he is the incoming chair of St. Joseph’s Hospital Foundation, where he has sat on the board for more than a decade. He serves on the board of Metropolitan Ministries in addition to serving as the board chair for Hyundai Hope on Wheels for six years.
After watching a segment on 60 Minutes one evening with his wife back in 2009, it spurred an emotional response about homelessness, and it inspired Fink and his family to get involved with the mission of helping families get back to self-sufficiency.
“I thought about starting my own foundation, and then I realized that I didn’t know enough about it, and I couldn’t manage it,” Fink says. “And then I met the team at [Metropolitan Ministries]. They do such a wonderful job helping people, families, in need. My goal was to get a campus in Pasco County, modeled after the expansive campus they have and operate in Tampa. Fink added that the recession hit Florida hard and the need for support in Pasco was tremendous. The Pasco campus is up and operating, with expansion plans in process.
Fink attributes much of his success to timing and recognizing opportunities when they are presented.
“I don’t want you to think I had this brilliant, long-term plan for growth and expansion,” Fink says. “I think one of the big differences, the philosophical differences, [was] when I was going to open Hyundai of New Port Richey, I wanted to do it for fun. Like, I was really excited. Sure, I wanted to make money to ensure the business was self-sustaining, but I wanted to build something significant.”
Now that Fink Auto Group has been acquired by Lithia, Fink remains a part of the company as a consultant, with no operational responsibility, he says.
“I’m an opportunist. I grew up in the projects,” Fink says. “You know, these are not generational businesses to me. They’re businesses. Of course, you want to make money, right? Come on. I was just an opportunist, and I will continue to be an opportunist.” ♦