Lillestol earned a B.S. from Mankato State University (now Minnesota State University, Mankato) in 1982. His first job out of college was manager of F&I (Finance & Insurance) at Hansen Ford in Grand Forks, North Dakota. His mentorship with the store’s owner, Jim Hansen, would greatly influence the trajectory of his career.
“Settling down with my wife, Keri, and infant son, I felt it was time to get a ‘big boy’ job and this looked to be a good fit for my college degree,” he said. “Jim Hansen liked me immediately and offered the position to me.”
And while he was told he would likely burn out after two years, Lillestol persisted, and was moved to Hansen’s Chrysler dealership, also in Grand Forks, as general manager in 1991.
“I enjoyed the freedom of running the store and learning more about the whole operation of a dealership, including sales, service, parts, marketing and community relations,” he said. He also talked to Hansen about opening his own location and in 2001, he found the right opportunity in Thief River Falls.
“The dealership needed a whole lot of love but to me, it was a diamond in the rough,” Lillestol said. “I just knew it was going to work out. I will always be grateful to my wife, our children and my many mentors that supported and helped me along this path of becoming a first-generation car dealer.”
As a new resident of Thief River Falls, Lillestol felt it was important to get involved with the community and his love for his adopted hometown has only grown stronger these last 20 years. He is most proud of his work with the Sanford Thief River Falls Medical Center, for which he was a board member for 10 years, as well as chair for three years.
“We now have dialysis in the facility, a new hospital with adjoining clinic and a licensed psychiatric hospital, the Sanford Thief River Falls Behavioral Health Center,” he said.
Lillestol is also an ambassador and advocate for economic advancement in Thief River Falls and currently serves on the city’s community development advisory board. “We review and make recommendations to the city council for loans for commercial expansion, storefront renovations, energy enhancements and job creation and retention,” he said. “One of our most satisfying initiatives was dispensing micro-emergency loans for small business during the pandemic, which has helped more than 30 businesses.”
A member of Trinity Lutheran Church and the Rotary Club of Thief River Falls, Lillestol also lends his time and talent to the Blandin Community Leadership Program, which works to strengthen communities in rural Minnesota, and the North Country Food Bank in East Grand Forks, Minnesota.
“It has been so rewarding to be a first-generation car dealer,” he said. “I was able to buy a dealership, run it successfully, give back to my community and I'm still around 20 years later.”
Lillestol was nominated for the TIME Dealer of the Year award by Scott Lambert, president of the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association. He and his wife, Keri, have three children and five grandchildren.