BATON ROUGE, LA (FOX44) — Gerald Ray, “Gerry” Lane, owner of seven Baton Rouge automobile franchises, died peacefully at home at 5:00 AM this morning at the age of 82, after a long battle with cancer. Son Eric Lane, Vice-President, and daughter Saundra Lane, Director, The Lane Agency, said the dealerships will continue to be run with the same principles he instilled in them.
“Customer service, innovation, and being deeply involved in the community—this is Dad’s legacy, and we are going to keep running the dealerships just the way we have been doing, like he taught us to do,” said Eric Lane.
“When Dad first gave me the chance to handle his advertising it was still unusual for women to be in leadership roles in business. He held me to such a high standard, sometimes it was really hard, but I sure learned a lot from him,” said Saundra Lane.
At the age of 22, with no experience or training, Gerry Lane sold his first car on June 3, 1953, his first day on the job at Pearson Ford in San Diego. His new bosses gave Gerry the keys to a new Ford, told him to go find a way to sell it, or lose his job. So he stood on a street corner and asked total strangers for help. He recounted the story to biographer Leo Honeycutt in the 2012 book, Gerry Lane: An American Success Story.
“I told these people, ‘I’m young and inexperienced, but I’ll get you as good a deal as I can get for anybody and I’ll treat you right and I’ll be here to take care of you,’’ he recalled. A refugee from the Oklahoma dust bowl, this sixth child of an English Irish father and Cherokee Indian mother saw the exciting post-war automobile boom as a way out of poverty.
His “Okie honesty”, drilled into him by his parents, worked. He quickly became Pearson’s top salesman and within three months was promoted to manager. Two years later he moved to Los Angeles to work for dealerships there, selling cars to the stars, including Clark Gable, Milton Berle, and Gregory Peck.
However, he soon grew tired of the phoniness of a town where he had no true friends. Lane decided to move back closer to his home. By then he had become one of Ford’s top salesmen and dealerships were eager to hire him. In 1956, Gerry started selling cars at Capitol City Ford in Baton Rouge. “I fell in love with Baton Rouge because everything was real: progress, people, and pay checks,” Lane told Honeycutt.
Gerry was the first person hired by the new Polk Chevrolet dealership, and at age 26 became the youngest general manager in the country. But by 1966, frustrated at being passed over for dealership ownership, he found his opportunity on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He purchased a failing dealership in Bay St Louis and turned it around within a year.
“I was guided by the inspiration of desperation and whiplash of necessity,” he remembered.
Gerry repeated that success with dealerships in Pascagoula, Gulfport, Lucedale, MS and Gonzales. However, he never forgot his affection for Baton Rouge, and when his mentor, Herb Polk, was ready to sell Polk Chevrolet, Gerry eagerly grabbed the opportunity to return to Baton Rouge. Gerry immediately took this 13th place local market dealership to first place.
Over the course of 46 years, dealerships owned by Gerry Lane have completed gross sales topping $10 billion.
As his financial success grew, so did his philanthropy. The Lane family, including Saundra, Eric, and his wife, Faye, has given more than $30 million to charity and community causes. Those include:
• YMCA Sports Sponsor for all eight YMCA locations in Baton Rouge for more than 23 years.
• Sponsoring the Angola Prison Rodeo for over 20 years and promoting it so it now has sellout crowds. The rodeo has been featured on ESPN, NFL Films, Discovery Channel, Primetime Live, 20/20, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, BBC, and many more news outlets.
• Karnival Krewe de Louisiane, a Mardi Gras Krewe that donates all proceeds to cancer research and indigent patient care, and the Krewe of Apollo’s Mardi Gras ball benefitting its HIV/AIDS Crisis Fund.
• In addition, March of Dimes, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, ARC of Baton Rouge, LSU’s Rural Life Museum, AMIkids, LSU and SU music and sports programs, and many others.
Another natural outgrowth of becoming financially successful was mentoring others so that they also became successful. One of those people was Cedric Patton, a 22-year-old African American youth introduced to Gerry in 1982 by Patton’s high school football coach. “I heard all my life that successful people will not tell you what it takes. So I go to work for him and he stands in the sales meetings teaching us what it takes to be successful in the car business. I was blown away by that,” Patton told Honeycutt.
Patton went on to become one of the company’s top salesmen, a manager, and eventually a 15% owner of two of the dealerships owned by Gerry Lane Enterprises. Gerry estimated that he has hired and trained 5,000 car salespeople and 3,000 managers.
“At one time, I had more managers that became dealers than any other dealer in this area. I send my salesmen to manager’s school and my managers to dealers school—those that want to go, and I still do,” he said.
As the years passed, though, Gerry realized he wanted to share the secrets of his success with a much wider audience than even the thousands he mentored one on one. So after coaxing from Eric, he agreed to work with Honeycutt on Gerry Lane: An American Success Story, a book he called, “much more than a biography, a road map”.
“I started in the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma in the Depression so poor I couldn’t afford hope. But if you can embrace change, leave your comfort zone the way I left the Dust Bowl, take a little risk, you can become rich in attitude, relationships, and yes, money. In that order,” Gerry recalled.
Honeycutt called Lane a “rare breed, a larger than life character”. “His story could change lives,” Honeycutt adds.
Joe Scoggin, who spent thirty-eight years as a General Motors executive, called Lane, “the hardest working, most sincere, truthful, and pleasurable colleague of my career, hands down.”
“He was so much of a model dealer who fought for the rights of consumers over the corporation that I admired him enough to move to Baton Rouge when I retired. He taught me a lot about how to create a happy life,” Scoggin added.
In 1996 Gerry was recognized as a “Time Magazine Quality Dealer of the Year” and in 2004 he was presented a National Lifetime Achievement Award from GMAC. Other professional honors include District Dealer of the year (won four times), Better Business Bureau’s Douglas Manship Sr. Torch Award for professional ethics, Business Report’s Executive of the Year, Golden Deeds award, Sales & Marketing Executives’ Marketer of the year, and the Durwood Gully Sales & Marketing Excellence Award.
Gerry Lane is survived by his wife of 55 years, Faye Rogan Lane; sons David and wife Cindy of Thousand Oaks, California, Eric and wife Lisa in Baton Rouge, and daughter Saundra of Bandera, Texas. He is also survived by one brother, Eldon Lane & wife Eulonda, of Douglassville, Texas and grandchildren Tyler and Ashton of Baton Rouge, Will Lane of Bandera, Texas, and Jordan, Jillian, Jacqueline, and Jackson Lane of California. He was preceded in death by his parents, Burl & Bonnie Lane, his brothers Lloyd and Bud, sister, Velma and son, Mark.
Visitation will be at Greenoaks Funeral Home, 9595 Florida Blvd, Monday from 12 to 5pm, followed by a private burial at the family mausoleum at Greenoaks Memorial Park & Funeral Home.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the YMCA Youth Sports Programs.
Fox44 News Baton Rouge will have a look at Lane's incredible career tonight on Fox44 News Baton Rouge at 9:00.