Bob McKamey, longtime Toyota dealer and philanthropist, dies

Bob McKamey speaks to a crowded reception room at the Chattanoogan in 2007.

Longtime Chattanooga businessman and philanthropist Bob McKamey, who was the first Toyota dealer in Tennessee and in the Southeast, died Tuesday.

More than 50 years ago, McKamey was approached by a salesman for the then-little known Japanese company who wanted him to sell some vehicles.

photo Bob McKamey speaks to a crowded reception room at the Chattanoogan in 2007.

McKamey recalled in a 2016 event marking his long association with the automaker that a Toyota car was parked nearby and he asked to take a look. He checked it out, closed the car door and was impressed by what he termed "a click" that to him indicated quality.

"I think I've got Toyota blood in my body," McKamey said then at his Capital Toyota dealership on Lee Highway. "I grew up with Toyota. It has been such a big part of our life."

Former Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said he and McKamey were friends for decades.

"He was a pioneer in Toyota," Littlefield said. "He was always able to see the future."

Tim Kelly, owner of Kelly Subaru on Riverfront Parkway, said he was "a big admirer" of McKamey's business acumen.

"He was a visionary," Kelly said.

McKamey, who was in his early 80s, was also known for his philanthropy - he was an early benefactor of McKamey Animal Center - and for his propensity to give people second chances.

McKamey said at the 2016 event that he had 27 people who had served prison time work for him. That number included the late Jake Butcher, the former Knoxville banker whose business empire collapsed and landed him in federal prison. McKamey said that all of those he'd helped, but one, became successful employees.

"Most dealers say it's location, location, location," he said. "I say it's people, people, people."

McKamey, in his later years, mostly worked from home due to illness.

Littlefield said they last talked a couple of days ago and McKamey was "in high spirits" but recovering after a prolonged stay in the hospital.

The former mayor said McKamey was "far more important to Chattanooga than most people realized."

Littlefield said that when Chattanooga was pursuing a Toyota auto production plant more than a decade ago, McKamey helped local officials get face to face interviews with "the most important people" in Toyota.

photo In this 2016 staff file photo, Bob McKamey, right, is honored by Paul Holdridge, left, vice president of sales in the U.S., and Scott Wracher, general manager of the Toyota Regional District that includes Tennessee, after 50 years of selling Toyota's from his Lee Highway dealership in Chattanooga.

Chattanooga finished second in the sweepstakes for that plant, losing it to Mississippi.

But shortly after that, local officials made a run at Volkswagen, which was returning production to the United States.

"Bob said he was ready to do anything, in spite of it not being Toyota, that we asked him to do," Littlefield said. "He said it was far more important to Chattanooga that we have an auto plant."

Chattanooga won the Volkswagen plant, which now employs about 3,500 workers making the Passat sedan and Atlas SUV.

Littlefield said he believed VW wouldn't have landed in Chattanooga without McKamey's support.

Kelly said McKamey understood how to run a dealership. Capital Toyota employs a couple hundred people.

"I was an admirer of his strategic insight and abilities," he said. "He did a heck of a job with Toyota, and with Lexus after that."

McKamey said in 2016 that it was hard selling Toyotas at first for quite a few years. In the first nine months, he sold just 11, he said.

"It was very rough. Then it began to change, and now it's the biggest auto manufacturer in the whole world," McKamey said. "It was a great decision. I had a lot of luck. [The salesman] called on three people in Chattanooga before he found me."

Information regarding services weren't available Tuesday night.

Contact Mike Pare at or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.