Greg Miller, son of the late iconic dealer Larry Miller, has bought his first dealership on his own – from another iconic dealer, Bob Baker who at 84 is just about out of the business after a long career.
“It has been a dream of mine for nearly 30 years to have my own dealership,” Miller says of his purchase of Bob Baker Toyota in San Diego. He will rename it Greg Miller Toyota.
“I figured it was time to back off a little bit,” Baker tells WardsAuto. Bob Baker Auto Group in its day had been a perennial member of the annual WardsAuto Megadealer 100 ranking.
Baker’s departure from auto retailing has been gradual. He had sold four stores in Carlsbad, CA, to his youngest son, Christopher. The elder Baker’s last dealership holding is a partnership in his late brother’s store, Ron Baker Chevrolet in National City, CA.
The Sandy, UT-based Larry H. Miller Automotive Group is No.10 on the WardsAuto Megadealer 100 with 53 stores. When his father died at age 64 in 2007, Greg Miller became head of the company, but later stepped down. He remains on the board of directors.
Miller, 49, began his career at his father’s first dealership, a Toyota store, when he was 13. It was not love at first sight, he told WardsAuto in a previous interview. “It was just work for me,” he said of sweeping lots and tagging inventory. At age 19, he began selling cars and got good at it, fostering an affinity for the business.
“I’m excited to begin this new venture in San Diego with Toyota, a brand I have decades of experience and familiarity with,” Miller says.
Miller’s reputation, business style and philanthropic nature “convinced me that he was the right person to purchase my Toyota dealership,” says Baker, a California native.
“I grew up in the used-car end of the business in downtown Los Angeles,” he says while looking back on his career. “My dad was probably one of the best auto wholesalers in L.A. But he played the horses and drank. He was abusive. He and my mother divorced when I was 10.”
Baker lived in foster homes, then served in the Korean War. He saw heavy fighting, later telling an interviewer “I counted nine different times when I figured I’d be killed.”
When he returned home to Los Angeles, he had no intention of getting into the car business. But a general manager at Frank Taylor Ford talked him into it. “I became the top salesman.”
Baker later served as a troubleshooter who was assigned to ailing dealerships to turn them around. He mastered the art of managing several stores at once.
In 1966, he finally got his own store, Bob Baker Chevrolet in Indianapolis. Twelve years later, he moved back to California. Why? “You can’t take California out of a boy who grew up there. But Indiana was very good to me.”
Over the years, he occasionally has locked horns with automakers over various issues.
In 2004, Ford blocked dealership chain Asbury Automotive’s $88 million bid for Baker’s collection of dealerships in and around San Diego. Ford didn’t want Asbury to acquire a Ford store in the Baker group, claiming Asbury’s Ford stores elsewhere had underperformed.
Baker says he holds no grudge about that one. “Even though it killed my deal, Ford is the fairest of the manufacturers when it comes to dealer needs. They all have their pluses and minuses. A dealer has to live with them.”
Baker’s oldest son, Michael, calls his father a “pillar of the community,” both as a successful businessman and a philanthropist. Christopher notes his father also was “incredibly active in dealer-protection legislation.”
Peter Welch, the current president of the National Automobile Dealers Assn., previously worked for the California New Car Dealers Assn., first as a legislative liaison, then as president.
“I hired Peter in California, and let me tell you, NADA got a deal when they got him,” Bob Baker says of his protégé.