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Celebrating 50 years of selling Toyota's from his Lee Highway dealership, 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.

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McKamey marks 50 years with Toyota

Dealership revamp

Ed Emerson, Capital Toyota’s sales manager, said a $3.9 million renovation of the longtime Lee Highway dealership changed its entire floor plan to make it more “customer friendly.” As well as updating the showroom, it created in-door drive though bays to help keep customers out of the weather. The refurbishing also enlarged the dealership’s footprint, he said.

Fifty years ago, then-Chattanooga used car dealer Bob McKamey was approached by a salesman for a little known Japanese company who wanted him to sell some vehicles.

A car produced by the automaker, Toyota, 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.

McKamey bought into the automaker, becoming the first Toyota dealer in Tennessee and in the Southeast. On Wednesday, he celebrated a five-decade association with Toyota — one of the longest ties by a dealer with the company in the United States.

"I think I've got Toyota blood in my body," said the 81-year-old McKamey at his Capital Toyota dealership on Lee Highway. "I grew up with Toyota. It has been such a big part of our life."

McKamey told family members, company executives and a large group of Chattanoogans that it was hard selling Toyotas at first for quite a few years. In the first nine months, he sold just 11.

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

Now, Capital Toyota has nearly 200 employees. It recently took over 6.5 acres across Lee Highway and moved its used vehicle business there, and Mc- Kamey also owns dealerships in Indiana and Kentucky with partner Steve Gates.

McKamey said he has had 27 people who've served prison time work for him, all but one becoming successful employees.

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

McKamey recalled he was on the first Toyota dealer council in the U.S., serving for 26 years, and he is the only dealer to chair the group four times. He has been on four trade missions to Japan at the request of three presidents to represent the U.S., he said.

He and eight other dealers formed the Americans for Free International Trade, a political action committee, putting in $5,000 each some 27 years ago.

"We were having problems from unions about bringing cars in," the auto dealer said. "We knew we had to do something. Today, it's the second largest independent PAC in Washington."

Paul Holdridge, vice president of sales for Toyota in the U.S., said that the year McKamey became a dealer, the company only sold 20,000 vehicles nationwide.

Now, Toyota has 1,238 dealers in the U.S. and last year sold 2.2 million vehicles including its Lexus brand, he said.

"While we still build cars that when you close the door they have that good click, the best deal is that we've got great dealers representing communities like Chattanooga," he said.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said that when one thinks about McKamey, it's not just the 200 jobs and the investment at the dealership.

"It also about Bob's willingness to give to the community," he said, citing his support of McKamey Animal Shelter.

Former Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield recalled McKamey worked with local economic developers to land a Toyota production plant that ultimately went to Mississippi. But, he also worked with officials to later attract Volkswagen's assembly plant to the city, Littlefield said.

Sam Wills, regional director for the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said McKamey's story shows "an incredible statement of vision."

McKamey said that while he works from home these days, he plans to continue in the business even as children Karla and Jeff are active.

"It has been a wonderful ride," he said.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.

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