On any given Saturday, children playing YMCA sports wearing T-shirts with the Gerry Lane Enterprises logo on the back can be spotted at local parks. Twice a year, TV and radio spots, and newspaper ads appear to promote the Angola Prison Rodeo.
YMCA sports and the prison rodeo are just two of the causes local automotive dealer Gerry Lane supports and feels passionate about.
“The way we were brought up, if you can do something to help someone you do it,” said Lane, who grew up in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. “My mother always said every time you do a favor for someone it’ll come back to you at least once. Maybe not from that person, but from someone.”
Abiding by that philosophy has not only profited Lane personally but in business, as well. Now, at the urging of family and friends, Lane and author Leo Honeycutt have penned a most unusual biography. It’s not only the story of Lane’s life but a primer on how to be a successful businessman.
Determined not to languish in Oklahoma, Lane set off at age 22 for a better life in California. He soon found himself asking total strangers to buy a car from him with a simple promise, “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.”
“I’ve never had a more fearful experience,” said Lane, now able to laugh at the memory. “The first guy I had a serious encounter with, I sold a car to him.”
Sixty years later, Lane has become one of General Motors’ top 25 dealers, amassing gross sales of more than $10 billion. He started out with a lone Chevy dealership but today has Cadillac, Buick, GMC, Saab and Mitsubishi dealerships. He also held the franchises for Pontiac, Saturn and Hummer before those lines were discontinued.
Together with wife Faye, daughter Saundra and son Eric, the Lane family has given more than $30 million to various community causes. Aside from underwriting the Y’s youth sports programs and sponsoring the Angola Prison Rodeo so that it now makes a profit to offset its operations, Lane has let himself be lampooned by friends to benefit the March of Dimes, raised thousands for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and Arc of Baton Rouge and written checks benefiting LSU’s Rural Life Museum and the Krewe of Apollo’s Mardi Gras Ball benefiting its HIV/AIDS Crisis Fund.
Remembering all too well how it was growing up poor, Lane also puts up money to help those less fortunate. Not only did he revive the Angola Rodeo but he offers jobs to inmates when they’re released.
“My hobby is working cattle … get out in the sunshine, get on my horse, Little Man, and do what I was raised to do,” Lane said of working with inmates at Angola. “I’ve had many inmates tell me, ‘Mr. Gerry, you don’t treat us like everybody else does. You’re not scared of us.’ I tell them they’re in jail for what they did, and I ask them if they’d do it again. They say, ‘No,’ and I say, ‘So why should I be scared?’”
In 1997, he and Eric helped found a night school to teach auto systems technology called Operation Quick Start. It not only gave people a job but Gerry Lane Enterprises a pool of potential well-trained employees. To help keep the program on solid financial ground, every time they hired a graduate, the Lanes contributed $250 to the program. If the employee stayed on the job for another year, they chipped in another $250.
Lane stepped up in 1995 when Karnival Krewe de Louisiane, which raised much-needed funds for Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center, was about to fold. Gerry Lane Enterprises originally agreed to underwrite the annual Mardi Gras Ball for five years, but is still corporate sponsor of this major fundraiser. Lane has been battling cancer on and off since 1980, and has often found himself a patient at Mary Bird.
For all his philanthropic and community endeavors Lane has received numerous honors including the Golden Deeds Award, presented annually by The Advocate and the InterCivic Council of Baton Rouge; the Association of Fundraising Professionals Philanthropist of the Year Award; and the Advertising Federation of Greater Baton Rouge’s E.A. “Pete” Goldsby Award.
Before heading to California and becoming a car salesman with customers such as Clark Gable, Gregory Peck and Milton Berle, sales was something Lane hated. He’d been a ladies shoe salesman back in Oklahoma and it was anything but a pleasant experience. He’d even confided to his mother, who was half Cherokee, that he didn’t think he had much chance of success because he was so far behind everyone else.
“Truth be told, we were more or less sharecroppers,” said Lane, who went to small schools from first through 12th grades. “There wasn’t much money and what there was, (my parents) weren’t going to let go of … we had to share and we had to be appreciative.”
But Bonnie Lane reminded the youngest of her three sons that the library was full of books written by successful people. “The only formal education I had was high school and some college, but I also got an education from reading.”
And that’s a continuing education. Lane reads anywhere for four to six books at a time. “If you read a book only read about four pages a day because you only remember about 5 percent of what you read on a daily basis,” he advised.
“She also told me to go to somebody I knew was a success and ask them how they did it,” Lane said. “And, you know what, of the 20 to 30 people I asked, just about everyone told me. They’re anxious to help if they feel you’re leveling with them and aren’t going to take advantage of them.”
So, Lane took the knowledge others shared with him, applied what he learned on his own, a trusted gut instinct, a lot of determination and hard work and a touch of luck and became a very successful businessman. And, like those who shared their wisdom with him, he’s been willing to share what he’s learned with those willing to work for their success.
“I’ve hired and trained some 5,000 car salesmen and 3,000 managers,” he said. “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 dealer’s school — those that want to go, and I still do.”
His professional honors include Time Magazine Quality Dealer Award, District Dealer of the Year (won four times), Business Report’s Executive of the Year, Sales & Marketing Executives’ Marketer of the Year, the Durwood Gully Sales & Marketing Excellence Award, Better Business Bureau’s Douglas Manship Sr. Torch Award for professional ethics and GMAC’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
“I wanted to try to the best of my ability to leave a history of what it takes to be a success. That was my ultimate goal,” Lane explained.