You know her business, but you may not know her name.
For nearly 30 years, Patty King, 72, has been quietly running Sunny King Automotive Group, Calhoun County’s best-known car dealership. The company has weathered recessions, crises in the car industry and the closure of Fort McClellan — and still manages to lend significant support, in money and volunteer hours, to local charities.
For her support of local charitable causes, The Star has named Patty King its 2018 Citizen of the Year.
“I thank the Lord that we’re still here,” said King, chairwoman of the company’s board of directors, on receiving the award at the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce Thursday. “We love this community and we love each of you.”
King took over the business in 1990, after the death of her husband E.D. “Sunny” King, Jr.
He left big shoes to fill. Possessed of a politician’s ebullient personality and seemingly a thousand brightly colored blazers, Sunny King for years worked as the primary television pitchman for his own dealership — becoming a local celebrity in the process. He also expanded his family’s business, begun as a single dealership in 1922, to add locations as far away as Huntsville and Auburn.
When Patty King inherited his role, she realized she had a lot to learn. Formerly the facilities manager for the company, she said she didn’t even know how to read a financial statement the day she became the company’s president.
Under her leadership, the company began reshaping some of its ambitions — changes that may have helped Sunny King survive upheavals in the community and the industry.
“The problem was, we’d overextended our capital,” said John Bryan, now president of the company.
Local residents of a certain age can remember King’s ubiquitous television ads and the way the dealership’s name – originally Sunny King Ford – grew to add the names Volvo, Chrysler, Honda and Toyota. Sunny King even sold Yugos at one point. During Patty King’s term as president, the company pared back to Anniston-area locations and a handful of core brands, including Honda and Ford.
Company officials say it helped prepare them for changes, including the Army base closure that took thousands of soldiers out of the city.
“That hurt us more on the parts-and-service side than it did on sales of new cars,” Patty King said of the base closure.
The company faced another challenge a decade later, with the 2008 recession that closed many new-car dealerships. But Sunny King Automotive survived. Bryan and King say the company now employs 160 to 170 employees.
And it still gives sizable amounts of money to local causes. Bryan said the company sets aside part of the company’s profits every year to give to charity, based on a formula that doesn’t change from year to year.
“We call it our tithe account,” said Bryan.
“Tithe” would seem to imply one-tenth of the company’s profits, though Bryan declined to talk specific amounts. Still, it’s enough money to sponsor two of the city’s biggest nonprofit events — a charity golf tournament and a bicycle race that bear Sunny King’s name.
“Patty King has been fantastic to work with,” said Jason Alderman, a co-chairman of the Sunny King Charity Classic, a three-day yearly golf tournament. “She really doesn’t like to be in the forefront, getting attention, but she’s a great supporter of the tournament.”
Alderman said the Classic, in its 40th year in 2018, has raised more than $2.5 million for local charities.
The dealership also sponsors the Sunny King Criterium, a road race that draws cyclists from around the country to Anniston, bolstering the city’s reputation as a cycling venue.
If organizers see any irony in a bicycle race sponsored by a car company, they’re not letting on.
“The thing about a [criterium] is that it’s a very fast race,” said race organizer Marilyn Cullinane. “It’s the NASCAR of biking.” Cullinane said King is easy to work with, a low-key presence at the event.
To King, the logic of the partnership is obvious. Race organizers needed cars.
“It’s a natural fit,” she said. “The organizers needed convertibles to use as pace cars. They needed cars to carry people around the event.”
Other local businesses likely see some gain from the event, which draws a high-income, largely college-educated crowd to town, according to a 2015 study by economists at Jacksonville State University. The JSU study estimates a $70,000 boost to the economy from the criterium alone.
The company also gives to other local events, including the Knox Concert Series, the Woodstock 5K and the Cheaha Challenge — events that are often staffed by volunteers from among Sunny King’s workforce.
King and Bryan say the company contributes to those causes because it’s the right thing — but they acknowledge that it might make good business sense, as well. For a local business hoping to survive in the troubled world of retail, King said, trust is vital.
“Customers still want to touch and feel the product they want to buy, and they want to trust whoever they do business with,” she said.