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Staff photo by Mike Pare / Capital Toyota on Lee Highway was started by longtime Chattanooga auto dealer Bob McKamey.

A longtime friend and business associate of the late Chattanooga auto dealer Bob McKamey has become a partner in Capital Toyota and Lexus of Chattanooga.

Steve Gates, who owns dealerships in Kentucky and Indiana, is the dealer-principal for the Chattanooga stores, though McKamey children Karla and Jeff remain majority owners, he said on Wednesday.

"It's a great place to have a business," Gates said. "Chattanooga is growing, vibrant. It's an exciting time to be in Chattanooga with so much stuff going on."

Bob McKamey, who was a Toyota dealer for more than 50 years and the first for the Japanese automaker in Tennessee and the Southeast, died about a year ago.

Gates said Toyota approved his becoming a partner in the Chattanooga dealerships last quarter. As dealer-principal, he said he's responsible "for everything related to the manufacturer."

"Decisions that directly impact Toyota or Lexus, that's my responsibility," he said.

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Staff file photo by Tim Barber / In 2016, Bob McKamey celebrated 50 years of selling Toyotas from his Lee Highway dealership. 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.

Gates, who lives in Lexington, Kentucky, said he had been acting dealer-principal before Toyota formally approved the partnership.

He said that he and the McKamey children are "actively looking" at sites for a different location for Lexus of Chattanooga, which shares the block with Capital Toyota on Lee Highway.

"We need the space. Lexus has grown," Gates said. "Lexus has a new image. This will be keeping with the new image."

The hope is that Lexus will be in a new building in little more than 24 months, Gates said.

"That's an expensive undertaking," he said.

The auto dealer said it's uncertain what would happen to the existing Lexus store, adding that it's not clear that Capital Toyota would use that space.

"It's a great building," Gates said. "It's too new to just raze it."

He said the dealerships last year hired Eddie Triplett as general manager, noting that Triplett's sales philosophy "is completely aligned with ours."

"It's a customer-first philosophy. It's a little more volume oriented," Gates said. "It's making sure the guest has a great experience. There's a renewed emphasis on customer satisfaction and on volume."

Gates said he and Bob McKamey had been partners for 35 years.

"He and my dad were best friends," he said. "Bob became my best friend and a surrogate father."

McKamey had recalled in a 2016 event marking his 50-year association with the automaker that he was a used car dealer when approached by a salesman for a then-little-known Japanese company who wanted him to sell vehicles.

A Toyota car was parked nearby and McKamey was 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 in 2016. "I grew up with Toyota. It has been such a big part of our life."

Gates said his dealerships sell a variety of brands, such as Honda, Nissan, Kia and Audi in addition to Toyota.

"I love all brands," he said on Wednesday. "Toyota has been my passion for a long time."

Gates said his father was a dealer in the late Sixties and early Seventies.

"We've grown over the years very conservatively," he said. "We want to keep the right brands and make sure we have the infrastructure and the money to be able to expand — slow and steady."

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

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