A decade ago, Vinny Vassallo was a laid-off factory manager.
Today, the entrepreneur from Eagan is tooling around in a $90,000 Tesla electric car. He may buy another one this year.
Just don’t think Vassallo, 60, is on easy street. He still works up to seven days a week as chief chauffeur and owner of six-vehicle Vincent Limousine. And he pays himself a $60,000 salary, far less than the job he lost in 2004.
“But this is my business, and this is fun,” said Vassallo. “I mostly have worked physically hard jobs. Delivering papers, ironworker and at the factory. This isn’t hard work. And I like to meet people.”
Vassallo grew up in New York and moved to the Twin Cities in 1973 after a hitch in the Navy. A longtime floor worker at what is now the Gerdau Steel plant in St. Paul, Vassallo was hired in 1998 by a young MTS Systems executive named Brad Cleveland as a welding technician at a subsidiary called AeroMet that made titanium parts.
Vassallo rose to plant manager, making $100,000 a year in 2003. However, MTS decided to shut down the operation with about a year’s notice to employees.
Vassallo thought about office work. He’d done well studying accounting in night school, but knew he wouldn’t enjoy sitting at a desk.
“One day, I saw a guy in a suit standing next to a limousine,” Vassallo recalled. “I thought, ‘I could do that.’ ”
Vassallo got licensed, used some of his severance, borrowed some money, bought his first Lincoln Town Car for $46,000, and started wearing a suit to work.
“I started sitting in front of hotels a lot, wasting a lot of time,” Vassallo recalled. “So I introduced myself to all the drivers and limo owners I could meet and eventually they started to send me some work when they were overbooked. I had to meet people, network, and find out who sets up the executives with transportation. Eventually, the business started to build.”
Cleveland, who left AeroMet earlier to run a small start-up that became publicly held Proto Labs Inc., isn’t surprised at Vassallo’s success.
Vinny was “the tenacious guy who we relied upon to help run our newfangled laser-metal deposition machine … a very challenging job,” recalled Cleveland, a regular limo client who has brought other business to Vassallo.
“Vinny also is as humble as he is energetic, and as kind as he is tenacious in business. He is a great combination of reliable and pleasant … the perfect combination for someone running a limo company.”
Chip Emery, the retired CEO of MTS, recalls running into Vassallo a few years after AeroMet closed, and was wary at first that Vassallo was going to confront him about the layoff.
“Instead of taking a swing at me he extended his hand to shake mine, thanked me for the severance that helped him buy his first Town Car and gave me his card,” Emery recalled. “And I’m a very happy customer. We use him with my new small business, particularly parties when we want everybody to get home safely.’’
There have been bumps in Vincent Transportation’s road. The firm was upended by the Great Recession. He often went without a paycheck.
“I could barely pay my bills,” recalled Vassallo, who is divorced with two adult kids. “By August 2010, things turned around. People were calling: ‘Hey, Vinnie, I need a ride to the airport.’ ”
Vassallo, with an office manager and six drivers, is headed for his best year. He may even take his second vacation in a decade.
The business has been turbocharged this year by the Tesla that Vassallo acquired in December for $90,000 after Ford discontinued production of Town Cars.
Vassallo, who was inspired to buy the revolutionary Tesla after riding in a couple of them that were owned by customers, charges $85 per hour compared with $75 for his other vehicles.
The Tesla is on the road seven days a week. Vassallo expects to make up the $40,000 price difference over a Town Car, thanks partly to fuel savings, in as little four years. He will drive it 60,000 miles this year, compared with the 40,000 he projected originally, thanks to customer demand.
“The first month, my fuel bill went down $700 and my electric bill went up $90,” Vassallo said. “They warranty the battery for eight years and I believe it will last 10 or more. I think we’ll have 1 million miles on it before I retire. And no more oil changes! Just tires.”
Vassallo, easygoing by nature, has only fired only one abusive customer. “I told this guy, ‘We’re a ‘service,’ sir, not ‘servants,’ ” said Vassallo, whose better customers have invited him to family birthday parties. “And I won’t do another 21-year-old’s birthday party. No more hog-wild rookie drinkers in my vehicles.’’
Said customer Mark Stutrud, who founded Summit Brewing Co. 28 years ago: “It’s good to start and end your trip with Vinny.”