Bill Gaines bought his first car back in 1957. He paid $100 for a 1948 Plymouth coupe.
“The insurance for it cost more than the car did,” Gaines said. “Things have changed.”
Gaines should know that better than most anyone when it comes to changes in the automobile industry. The 81-year-old Palatka man has been selling cars at different dealerships in the city for 50 years.
He continues to do so today, working as a sales consultant at Beck Chevrolet on Reid Street. The dealership celebrated his golden anniversary, recently naming him Employee of the Month.
Fifty years is a long time to do anything, particularly in the ever-changing world that is the automotive industry.
Gaines, however, tends to be in things for the long haul – whether it’s his career or his personal life. He and his wife, Mary Sue, were married 55 years before she passed away about seven years ago.
“We started dating in high school,” Gaines said as he smiled. “I was able to retire when she was in bad health, but she wanted me to keep on working because she knew it was something I enjoyed. She didn’t want me just sitting around the house and taking care of her.”
So, even today, Gaines looks forward to coming to work each day. He greets customers, talks with them either on the lot or inside his office. He’ll grab keys so they can take a test drive.
He admits the weather is sometimes his toughest customer – either too hot, too cold or raining. Otherwise, as long as he’s physically able, he’ll stay on the job.
It’s a job where he’s seen the industry evolve from the days where new cars cost less than $5,000 to today where one can easily cost 10 times that much.
He’s seen the price of gasoline for those cars climb from 30 cents a gallon to three dollars or more depending on market volatility. And he’s continued to work in an industry where today’s customers are more informed with access to all kinds of information about the vehicle they want to drive.
He’s sold vehicles to generations of customers – mothers and fathers, their children and then their children’s children.
What’s the secret of his success? I asked a few folks that question Wednesday, including Beck General Manager Matt Buckles.
“Customer service and honesty,” Buckles said. “He’s a straight shooter. Even to this day, he’s still productive and a team player.
“The buying process is a little different, but ultimately, it still comes down to taking care of your customers. And he’s got the market cornered.”
I asked the same question about the secret of Gaines’ success to Jeremy Alexander, the dealership’s general sales manager.
“Obviously, the way he treats his customers,” Alexander said. “Mr. Bill’s generation was raised much differently than even my generation. What I’m trying to instill in my children comes naturally to him – the values he has. He treats every single customer like they’re his family.”
Gaines has obviously done something right to thrive in his career for 50 years. However, he did have to change gears a couple of times when he was searching for a career path.
When he graduated from Palatka High School, Gaines had plans to go to the University of Florida. He wound up taking a different road and heading north to Auburn University.
“I was working for the school board the summer after I graduated, trying to save up enough money to go to school,” Gaines said. “I found out Hudson Paper had a co-op program where you’d work and go to school to be an engineer. After a year in school, I decided being an engineer wasn’t for me.”
Gaines drove home to Palatka and was working in the insurance business. Then he turned toward the car business.
“I was in insurance and I didn’t like it,” Gaines said. “My brother had bought a car from Ed Beckler, who owned the Pontiac dealership. Mr. Beckler told my brother for me to come down and talk with him.”
Gaines found the right highway for his future. So in February 1970, he went to work selling Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles for the Bainbridge dealership at the corner of Moseley Avenue and Reid Street. The Beck Automotive Group would eventually buy the dealership and add it to their family of stores in Palatka.
More than five decades later, Gaines is still trying to cater to his customers’ needs.
“I didn’t think I would be in it this long, but it’s worked out that way,” Gaines said. “It’s been interesting dealing with people. It’s been fun. I’ve made a lot of friends and worked with a lot of great people.”
While Gaines has been a constant figure in the industry, so much else has changed.
“Cars are so much better now and safer than ever before,” Gaines said. “In the 1970s, brakes didn’t last long. You could buy a new car and after 7,000 miles, you’d need to buy a new set of tires. Now, tires are good for 60,000 miles or maybe more.
“The cars are better than ever, but all of those changes do cost money. Cars can park themselves now. They will continue to get better and better and last longer.”
Another huge shift in the industry is the availability of information on the internet related to pricing, a car’s features and all the available options. One feature may come standard on one model and be an option on another. Many customers come into a dealership knowing exactly what they want on a vehicle and how much they want to pay for it.
His job today is more about customer relations.
“The customer is smarter and that means the sales people have to be smarter,” Gaines said. “We have to know how all this stuff works. There’s so much more on a car now than there was in the 1970s.”
So, Mr. Gaines, what is your explanation of a successful career in auto sales spanning 50 years?
“The best thing to do is just be friendly, not pushy and listen to questions customers ask so you’ll know what they want and get as close to it as you can,” Gaines said. “And you try to treat the person like you want to be treated.”
I thanked Mr. Gaines for visiting with me. He shook my hand, looked me in the eye and thanked me.
It’s good to know some things never change.
Wayne Smith is the editor of the Palatka Daily News. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.