"Excellence" is a core value of Carol Martin "Bill" Gatton, from his formative years to today. This value has shaped his business endeavors, visionary philanthropy, and his approach to a life that is well-lived in service and concern for the people of our region and beyond.
Born in Western Kentucky, Mr. Gatton's initial business venture began when he was eight years of age. He raised an acre of watermelons every year, selling his product on the side of State route 81 between Breman and Sacramento, Kentucky. At that time, too, he completed his first real estate transaction: he purchased six acres of land for $600, and sold the acreage for $1,200 four years later.
Deciding that the family farm was not his preferred path for his future after graduating from Sacramento High as Class Valedictorian in 1950, Bill enrolled at the University of Kentucky to study Business Administration and Economics. During his undergraduate days, he took a part-time sales position with L.R. Cooke Chevrolet. He was paid "straight commission" on his sales. When his first three weeks passed without selling an automobile and thus not earning his first dollar, the dealership offered Bill 75 cents per hour to work in the parts department. Declining this offer as he was fiercely determined to be successful in sales, Bill quickly sold seven new cars and trucks and earned over $700 as his first commission check. With his perseverance paying off, Bill recalls, "I thought I had hit the bottom of Fort Knox."
Duty to country called and after graduation from UK, Bill was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army. Completing his active duty, he utilized the GI Bill and borrowed some funds to pursue his MBA in Finance and Banking at the Wharton Graduate School, University of Pennsylvania. Several of the nation's leading businesses in New York City and elsewhere made a tempting offers of employment to Bill, after earning his MBA. Knowing these offers were not conductive to his entrepreneurial constitution, Bill returned to Lexington and became a management trainee at Security Trust Company.
Bill's interest in the automobile business remained, however. In 1959, after borrowing $25,000 from his father, Bill opened a Volkswagen dealership in Owensboro, Kentucky, to sell those "funny-looking VW Beetles." He was the youngest VW dealer in the country at that time. Although Bill brimmed with optimism of youth, his father did not. Bill notes, "My Dad had told my two older brothers, 'He'll be broke in six months and back on the farm where he belongs." Proving his father was not prophetic on Bill's choice of careers at least, Bill was ticketed for entrepreneurial success, selling the VW dealership in 1965. Two years later her purchased the Chevrolet-Cadillac dealership in Bristol, Tennessee, thus providing the cornerstone to eventually build and own nine additional Acura, Honda, and Saturn dealerships in Alabama, Tennessee, and Texas.
Expanding his business acumen in his other commercial interest, i.e., banking, Mr. Gatton invested in banks in Kentucky and Indiana over the years. He served as Chair of the Board for Area Bancshares based in Owensboro. Under his leadership Area Bancshares became the largest bank holding company in Kentucky before being sold to BB&T in 2002.
Bill Gatton is recognized as a philanthropist in higher education. At his undergraduate alma mater, the UK Carol Martin Gatton College of Business and Economics proudly bears his name. Bill, a champion for higher education, says "I truly believe education expands one's vision and self-confidence." For ETSU, he has generously supported many academic and athletics opportunities; yet, his philanthropic passion is the ETSU College of Pharmacy.Mr. Gatton notes "Pharmacy is a great career opportunity for your people. Prospective students will be able to attend ETSU without going all the way to Memphis for their education. We have an aging population, and trained pharmacists are essential for the health care of our older citizens. Also, the new College of Pharmacy will be a great boost to the economy of this region."
Mr. Gatton is also proud of his other community and regional affiliations: The Bristol Chamber of Commerce, the Bristol Rotary Club, the Salvation Army, the Humane Society, and the Boys and Girls Clubs among many others. He was elected to the Tennessee/Virginia Junior Achievement Hall of Fame in 2004, and likewise for the Owensboro Junior Achievement honor in 2000. He has served nationally and regionally in positions of leadership for many automobile-related organizations.
Always looking ahead in life, Mr. Gatton shares his approach to retirement: "When I was 30, I thought I just might retire at 40. When I was 40, I decided I'd wait to 50. When I reached 50, I decided to delay retirement until I was 60. At 60, I realized I would never retire. Why? I do not want more money for myself, but I do desire to continue to work to earn money to support worthwhile endeavors, and I also believe active people live longer."
As he continues to work and to give, is there a lesson from his business success Bill Gatton can impart? Bill shares, "Honesty is an absolute prerequisite for success. It doesn't matter how many fine qualities you have unless you are honest and have the trust of your associates, you will never ultimately succeed."
For his excellence, giving, and honest approach to life and philanthropy, C.M. "Bill" Gatton is this year's ETSU Foundation "Margin of Excellence" recipient.