TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS
>>> by Margaret Pilarski
In today’s Charleston, it’s hard to avoid the influence of Tommy Baker. Whether you’ve bought from or had repairs done at Baker Motor Company’s car dealerships, been influenced by his work with the College of Charleston and The Citadel, or benefitted from his support of MUSC Children’s Hospital, Baker’s lifetime of hard work and philanthropy has touched thousands.
But the larger-than-life man took quite a route to come home.
Toward the end of high school, Baker joined the United States Marine Corps, undergoing training at Parris Island, all the while being told he was one of two who could qualify for the USMC’s aviation branch. The catch was that it required four years instead of the six months of reserve service he had been anticipating.
“I said ‘No, I’m going to college, sir,’ but they make you feel special. Anyway, I shipped over. I wanted that white uniform with the emblem and the globe.”
While he was supposed to end up in Vietnam, his orders were changed, and he spent time in Okinawa instead before landing at North Carolina’s New River Air Station. He’d spend weekends in Charleston, at one point hearing about a veteran’s program at The Citadel that would allow him to attend class without being a member of the cadet corps.
By the time he reached his senior year, he was balancing classes with car sales at Oldsmobile and had saved enough to buy two homes on the Isle of Palms, generating additional rental income. He was 23.
By 26, he’d found a car dealership in North Carolina that he wanted to buy.
“I had to sell the two homes to get enough for the down payment. So I went to the bank, and I had my little financial statement, and I gave it to the banker. He said, ‘Mister Baker, you have no money.’ I said, ‘That’s why I’m here, you have the money.’”
After the bank turned him down, Baker went to Toyota’s corporate office to plead his case, where in addition to being told he didn’t have money, they also said he was too young. “I got turned down maybe ten times,” he says. “Eventually the bank and the manufacturer got together and said, ‘You know, this fella won’t go away, and it’s just Clinton, North Carolina; let’s give him a shot.’”
In the midst of eastern North Carolina, he had to convince farming families that drove Fords and Chevrolets to buy Toyotas, a brand so new that some couldn’t even correctly pronounce it. But after a few years, he was meeting and exceeding goals, at one point attempting to sell 500 cars in 30 days and falling just two dozen short of the goal – a feat that turned heads at Toyota.
“That was kind of a turning point,” says Baker.
It was the early 1980s when he ran into the owner of Charleston’s Mercedes-Benz dealership at 82 Queen. Baker coerced the man to sell him his dealership, offending him in the short-term, but winning him over in the long-term. In 1988, Baker took over the dealership (located where Edmund’s Oast is today) and added INFINITI and Land Rover to his product portfolio.
Today Baker’s dealerships include Mercedes-Benz, INFINITI, Land Rover, Jaguar, Porsche, Maserati, Roll-Royce Motor Cars, Mercedes-Benz Vans, smart, Buick, GMC and Cadillac in Charleston; BMW and Porsche in Wilmington, NC.. “Being from Charleston, I just figured people would come and buy cars from me. But you have to earn that every day – one car sale and one repair at a time,” he says.
It’s a lesson that Baker learned and then taught at the College of Charleston for 25 years as an entrepreneur-in-residence. “It was amazing,” he says of his time teaching at the College.
At the same time, Baker continued to support his alma mater, helping to shape The Citadel’s business education programs and making a transformative donation to their business school,now christened the Tommy & Victoria Baker School of Business.
“What I want for The Citadel is what I want for education for Charleston,” says Baker. “To me, whatever I do is not for one school, it’s for our community. Whether through work, wealth or talent, the most important thing is what you have done for your community – I think that we all owe that.”
And Baker isn’t slowing down anytime soon. “Most people, when they retire, say they want to teach and get involved in the community, but I’ve been doing that,” he says. “Now my kids are grown and everybody’s taken care of. So now it’s my time, it’s Tommy time.”