Bigger than the deal: Sen. George Gainer sells Bay Cars dealership in Panama City

Jacqueline Bostick
The News Herald

PANAMA CITY — More than his role as a legislator, State Sen. George Gainer is better known as a homegrown businessman who has held that "life is bigger than the deal."

That axiom — often heard on his Bay Cars commercials — took on a refined form Monday of last week when Gainer sold his dealership.

"It means if you make a deal ... the deal should improve everybody's position, not just the dealers," Gainer said. "These are our friends, our family, ... that's more important than anything that you put on paper."

State Sen. George Gainer takes a stroll and looks over the Bay Cars dealership in Panama City on Friday, March 5. Gainer, who owned the dealership for 25 years, sold it last week.

"I'm 78 years old, there's still a lot of good people there," Gainer said, applying the principle to sale of the dealership. "I wanted to make sure it remained in good hands and my people would take care of it, and (the new owners) seemed like the people that would do it."

Gainer, who sold his first car in 1964 at Tommy Thomas' car lot, initially bought Bay Cars in 1968. He sold it in 1972, then repurchased it in 1998, expanding the line of Lincoln, Mercury and Dodge brands to include Chrysler, Jeep, Ram and Hyundai. Over the decades, Bay Cars, at 641 W. 15th St., would prove its local resilience, surviving the ramifications of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 2010, reopening within weeks of being almost decimated by Hurricane Michael in 2018 and now the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Outgoing General Manager Dennis Smith lauded the company's continued growth, attributing it to Gainer's commitment to prioritizing the personal lives of his employees and customers first.

State Sen. George Gainer Gainer, left, talks with Gary Dodson outside the Bay Cars dealership in Panama City on Friday, March 5. Gainer, who owned the dealership for 25 years, sold it to Dodson this week.

"He told me at the end of every day, we're going to go home knowing we've done the right thing," Smith said, recalling Gainer's first statement to him. "He has always kept his word with our employees and to his customers."

Smith said he plans to stay with the company for a few weeks to help with the ease of the transition, but will discontinue working at Bay Cars thereafter. Gainer's assistant, Bob Burgamy, also will bid farewell to the car lot, which he initially joined shortly after Gainer purchased it after working for the senator at a different dealership in Georgia.

"It has been a pleasure to work for such an honorable person," he said. "I'd like to say thank you for everything he has done for me and my family."

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The Bay Cars staff was retained with the purchase, as were the name, websites and email accounts. New owner Gary Dodson, who now calls Panama City home along with his wife Joy, said the deal was "about as smooth a transition in ownership that I've ever been involved in."

State Sen. George Gainer looks over the Bay Car dealership in Panama City on Friday, March 5. Gainer, who owned the dealership for 25 years, sold it this week.

"The community can expect no change or disruption in the service and partnerships (Bay Cars) have throughout this community," he said, noting the company will still run with a "customer service first business attitude."

Dodson owns a Cadillac dealership in Jackson, Mississippi, and has been in the dealership business for 31 years. Based on initial discussions about the deal in the fall of last year, he said he believes Gainer was meticulous in looking for the next owner.

"We struck up first a friendship and co-respect for each other, and just kept developing the conversation until we started talking about buying the place," he said. "I really feel ... he hand-selected who he was going to choose."

Body shop manager Greg Latta said he would like to see what the new owner will bring to the dealership, planning to continue his career of more than 30 years at Bay Cars.

"I enjoyed working with Mr. Gainer. I knew what to expect from him — he's given as much as he has expected," he said, noting he has "a long time to go" to completing his career. "I want to see what these people offer."

Although no longer at the helm, Gainer emphasized he is not relocating and will continue to call Bay County home. Jesting, he said "55 years in the business is long enough" and he does not plan to purchase another dealership "any time soon."

"I left a lot of faces that I walked in the door to meet. I was so fortunate to have the greatest people in the world to work for me and work with me," Gainer said. "I consider myself lucky."

When asked what was next in his life, Gainer, who has was elected to the Florida Senate in 2016 and has two years left on his term, hinted he would run for another four-year term if "the people want me to."