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Ray McKenney - Time Magazine North Carolina Dealer of the Year

Catching a break from the heat of the South Carolina sun brought Ray McKenney into the automotive industry. McKenney was 16 in 1970 and working a summer job at a cemetery in Columbia, S.C., selling grave plots. He'd walk across the street to the Chrysler-Plymouth dealer to eat lunch in the air-conditioned waiting room.

The salesmen would joke around with McKenney about the cemetery business, and he'd kid them about selling the MG and Triumph franchises, two lines of sports cars that appealed more to youthful drivers. "I was getting out of high school and the sales manager just said something to me. He said, 'If you can sell, why don't you come over here? We'll show you what real selling's all about,'" McKenney said. "And I think he was kind of kidding around, but those salesmen said, 'What you ought to do is just come on and show up at the sales meeting.'"

The only question they had for the teenager: Do you have a tie? On the following Monday morning, McKenney appeared at that sales meeting with a tie around his neck. The sales manager decided to give McKenney a chance, and some of the salesmen took him under their wings. He started out in the finance department and was soon filling in on nights and weekends as he studied accounting and religion at the University of South Carolina.

McKenney moved to Gaston County in July 1981 when he had the opportunity to buy into a Chevrolet franchise in Belmont. Today, he is president of McKenney Chevrolet Buick GMC Cadillac in Lowell. His name is also attached to local Honda, Mitsubishi and power sports dealerships. McKenney is one of 57 dealers across the country nominated for the for the 2014 TIME Dealer of the Year award. He'll represent nearly 700 new auto and truck dealers in the state and be honored at the 97th annual National Automobile Dealers Association Convention & Exposition in New Orleans in January.

McKenney said he was shocked when the head of the state automotive dealers association told him he was North Carolina's pick for the Dealer of the Year accolade. "My first question was, 'Now, wait a minute. Just because you get this, does that mean you have to retire? Because I don't want to retire yet. Is this some kind of old guy's award where that means you're done — you know, Hall of Fame, you're out?'" McKenney said.

"He laughed and said no. And I was just thrilled because it's not just a reflection of me as the face of the dealership. Obviously the people that are associated with our different dealerships — our total organization's relationship to the community, the background they do, that's what they're looking for."

Nominees for the TIME Dealer of the Year represent the nation's most successful auto dealers who also show a long-standing commitment to community service in their hometowns. Much of McKenney's community service comes from his support of Holy Angels in Belmont, the organization that provides a home and love for children and adults with severe intellectual and physical disabilities. He worked with the organization to provide vans and cars because the McKenney dealership was close by. McKenney came to know Maria Morrow, the first official resident of Holy Angels.

"I was a 25-year-old dealer, and Maria was 25-years-old," McKenney said. "And even though she was obviously very physically challenged, she was mentally very astute," McKenney said. "And just like any two other 25-year-olds, we'd joke around and kid around a little bit. She was kind of like the backbone of that whole organization and how it took off. And we just got to be friends over the years."

McKenney's dealerships aid local nonprofits by sponsoring events. McKenney has provided vehicles for Gaston County Schools' Teacher and Principal of the Year winners and donated vans to families with children with disabilities. The company has a missions committee that provides services to people in need. To be successful in a community like Gaston County, dealerships have to dispel the myth of being fast-talking, slick operations, McKenney said. People like to do business with independent, community-oriented companies they can trust. McKenney has tried to establish that trust by having long-term employees and being involved in the community, he said.

McKenney dealerships have been able to flourish by diversifying their franchises, buying and selling when opportunities arose. "There's been a lot of consolidation in all the different types of franchises throughout the years, but our investments and our focus have always been Gaston County. I've never tried to branch out of the county," McKenney said. "This is the market that I know, and I've felt comfortable investing in this market because I know the employees in the business in this market and we know the customer base and so we've been able to be successful."

McKenney was one of the founders of First Gaston Bank, later CommunityOne, and has been on the board of directors since 1996. He's a member of the Montcross Area Chamber of Commerce and Gaston Regional Chamber. "Nobody's gotten more out of being in this county," he said. "I love this county and the people in it. And I fit."

Page by Amanda Memrick - (John Clark/The Gazette) 


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