Teshome Tesfaye, 59, came to the United States as a 21-year-old Ethiopian immigrant with just a few dollars in his pocket.
Today he owns Norfolk Motors outside Denver, with more than 100 vehicles on his website.
It was a long journey and a big change from his native country.
“When I left the country, it was under a Communist regime,” Tesfaye said. “It was getting worse and worse.”
He came to America to get an education and attended Cheyney State College, which later became Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, a historically black college founded in 1837.
He then traveled to Metropolitan State University of Denver and studied chemistry.
While driving a taxi to earn money, he went to pharmacy school.
Tesfaye said one of his early jobs as a pharmacy tech was working at the hospital preparing I.V. bags, but it didn’t last.
“I worked a couple of months and quit because I didn’t like it,” he said. “The smell (of the medications) was making me sick.”
So he went back to driving, working for a shuttle company.
“It was good money at the time,” he said. “I had a family.”
Tesfaye was married to his high school sweetheart, who had previously studied in Germany on a scholarship.
Eventually, Tesfaye got a dealer license. It was about 1996 or 1997, he said.
“I love cars,” he said. “I was a wholesaler when I started.”
At that time, his brother was an independent retail car dealer.
“He was giving me advice and everything,” Tesfaye said. “He’s my little brother, but he had been doing it for a while.”
Tesfaye wanted to make more money than he was making as a wholesaler and decided to start a retail business.
“I opened up my own store and started with three cars,” he said. “That’s how I started.”
His dealership – Norfolk Motors in Aurora – was named after a street he used to live on. It has grown a bit since then.
“Right now, I have a place that takes up the whole block,” he said.
Norfolk Motors sells almost all retail, with no subprime and maybe one or two buy-here, pay-here deals. Tesfaye also does wholesaling.
“I sell 60-plus a month in retail,” he said
He has 100 units in stock and more than that in storage. Tesfaye caters to a more upscale market.
“I carry luxury cars like Range Rovers, Mercedes, BMWs, Audis – most of them are luxury,” he said.
The average retail price is in the $14,000 to $15,000 range. The average model year is 2008 or 2009 and mileage is less than 120,000.
Tesfaye said this niche is not common among the independents he knows.
“A lot of dealers don’t carry luxury cars because the maintenance is very high,” he said.
While there are some used luxury dealers around, Tesfaye said his vehicles are targeted toward middle-class people.
“It’s not too much money to ask,” he said. “You can drive a Range Rover for $14,000.”
Tesfaye is settled here in the U.S. with his wife and two daughters. Many of his other family members live in America as well.
He was fortunate to come here in the mid-1990s, he said, when the waiting period to become a citizen wasn’t so long. Within five years of applying, he was an American citizen.
Last June, he had a chance to go back to Ethiopia for the first time in 23 years.
“It was completely different,” he said. “When I left the country it had 45 million people. Now the country has, like, 98 million people.
“I had to show my kids, because they were born here. They’ve never been there.”
Tesfaye’s oldest daughter is away at college in North Carolina, studying marketing and business. His youngest is in high school.
When Tesfaye first left his homeland, he hadn’t planned on going back.
It still lacks the freedoms that the U.S. offers.
“It’s just controlled by a few people,” Tesfaye said. “But when I left, it was completely Communist.”
“They’re still killing people.”
For Tesfaye, America is a land of opportunity.
The differences between the two countries stood out last summer when Tesfaye attended the National Independent Automobile Dealers Association’s Day on the Hill in Washington, D.C.
“I didn’t expect that this guy from Ethiopia would be meeting with U.S. Senator Cory Gardner,” he said. “This is just a dream come true.
“It was very exciting. It was the time of my life.”
Tesfaye said one of the reasons why so many Ethiopians come to America is because of the lack of freedom in his native land.
“When I left Ethiopia, the government let us take $50 only. That was a scary thing.
“But this is a dream land. If you work hard, you can make money. You can do anything you want.”