Luxury automobile dealership Baker Motor Co. and its founder, Tommy Baker, are institutions in the Lowcountry.
Soon, the names of the entrepreneur and wife Victoria will be attached to one of Charleston's prominent institutions of higher learning.
Baker said Wednesday he and his wife are giving a "significant" contribution to his alma mater, The Citadel, where the new business school will carry the couple's names. He declined to say how much he is giving.
The gift, payable over 10 years, is the largest cash donation ever to the military college's business program, according to The Citadel. The donation is part of The Citadel Foundation for Leadership campaign.
“The education I received at The Citadel reinforced the discipline I learned in the U.S. Marine Corps, which together laid the groundwork for any business success I have experienced,” Baker said. “Both experiences reinforced my belief in the essential values of discipline and service to others."
He said he is pleased and proud that he and his wife are able to make the donation.
"By giving back in this way, Victoria and I hope to provide future Citadel cadets and students with opportunities for success while producing principled entrepreneurs for Charleston, the Lowcountry and beyond.”
The Citadel hailed the contribution as helping the school conclude its six-year strategic objective called LEAD Plan 2018. The plan aims to increase the school's emphasis on developing and expanding academic programs that foster excellence in the learning environment and elevate institutional prominence.
“When people in the Lowcountry think of Tommy Baker, they think of business success," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. John W. Rosa, president of The Citadel. "This transformative gift will reflect his achievements, providing resources to create programs of distinction in the Tommy and Victoria Baker School of Business."
Baker, a Lowcountry native, enlisted in the Marine Corps shortly after graduating from high school in 1963. He returned to Charleston in 1968 after serving in Okinawa, spent one semester at the College of Charleston and then enrolled at The Citadel, which offered a supportive veteran program. He graduated with a business degree in 1972 and worked in the car business while going to college.
"I fell in love with it," Baker said of selling cars. "I've got gasoline in my veins."
At his first Toyota dealership in Clinton, N.C., at the age of 27 he decided to sell 500 cars in 30 days in a town east of Fayetteville with a population of 8,500. Everybody said he couldn't do it.
Baker secured financing for the automobiles, advertised extensively throughout eastern North Carolina, and hired a slew of workers to unload the vehicles from trucks over several days and park them in neighboring farmland.
He sold about 10 cars the first day and 20 the next, and then the rain set in — for the rest of the month almost every day. He thought he was washed up.
Baker went back on TV and told people to wear their galoshes when they shopped for the cars because the lots were a muddy mess.
At the end of 30 days, he had sold 476 cars, astounding financiers and even the Toyota top brass.
For the next 25 years, he expanded his holdings to own and operate 10 dealerships, mostly in North Carolina along with one in Birmingham, Ala., where he met his wife.
In 1988, Baker decided to return to Charleston and founded his namesake car dealership on the peninsula, starting with the Mercedes-Benz brand before moving to West Ashley. That same year he was accepted into Harvard Business School's owner/president management program, an intensive three-year study of business models and executive education.
Baker Motor now consists of a second Mercedes-Benz dealership in Mount Pleasant, as well as the local dealer for Porsche, Maserati, Infiniti, Rolls-Royce, Jaguar, Land Rover, Cadillac, GMC, Sprinter and Smart.
Last year, Baker purchased a 13-acre site beside Interstate 26 in the Nexton development near Summerville for a future dealership. He hopes to break ground in the fall. He also recently purchased a BMW dealership in Wilmington, N.C., and is in the process of buying another one in the Tar Heel State.
Baker, who is now past 70, said he has no plans to retire and is not selling the business.
Baker is no stranger to philanthropic causes. He supports numerous charitable organizations, particularly in the education, medical and arts communities. For the past few years, Baker Motor served as the lead sponsor for the upcoming Charleston Fashion Week.
In 2008, he was recognized by the Association of Fundraising Professionals for Baker Motor Co.’s philanthropy and encouragement of others to take leadership roles in community involvement.
Previous gifts by the Bakers to the military college include athletic scholarship support for The Citadel Brigadier Foundation and most recently, the establishment of the Tommy B. Baker Veteran Fellowship program.
"What a privilege it is for a guy like me to give a small part back for the heroes who come home after serving our country," he said.
The college's strategic plan calls for the new $20-million-plus Bastin Hall building that will house the business school to supplement coursework with hands-on learning.
The structure will feature nine classrooms, which will alleviate scheduling constraints due to limited classroom availability, an “innovation” room equipped with technology, and a large atrium with a view of the school’s Bastin Financial Leadership Lab, where students can track stocks in real time and simulate working at a trading desk.