Driven: Matt McKay's powerful commitment to community

From time to time, Matt McKay wonders about something.

What would have happened back in high school if his American Legion baseball team had won their state championship game?

Because if they had, he muses, the cards might have fallen differently, and he wouldn’t have had a chance conversation that led to a part-time job at a car dealership—a fork in the road that has yielded tremendous success and personal satisfaction. It’s also allowed McKay to get involved in some of Baton Rouge’s most important community projects.

 Matt McKay with students at the automotive training center named after his father, who was a teacher and principal in EBR schools. 

Matt McKay with students at the automotive training center named after his father, who was a teacher and principal in EBR schools. 

The chairman, president and CEO of All Star Automotive Group, McKay grew up in Baton Rouge’s Melrose neighborhood and graduated from Tara High School in 1972. That’s about the time he landed in the world of automobile sales. The summer following his senior year, McKay was playing for an Audubon Ford-sponsored baseball team that secured a spot in the state championship. The team lost in a heartbreaking defeat, and as McKay and his teammates sat dejected, Audubon Ford General Manager Bill Gowland approached McKay.

“He said, ‘Show up tomorrow morning, and I’ll put you to work,’” McKay recalls. “I figured since my baseball career was over, why not? I went to the Monday morning sales meeting, not knowing a thing about the business. Sometimes I think about what would have happened if we’d won that game.”

McKay juggled part-time work at Audubon Ford while attending LSU, and he eventually signed on to a full-time car lot career. With an honest demeanor and keen sense of the business, McKay rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a sales manager. Then in the fall of 1987, McKay struck out on his own, going into business with partner John Noland.

The two formed the All Star Automotive Group, and they purchased Lousteau Ford Lincoln Mercury in Gonzales. 

The company name, says McKay, stemmed from the region’s love of sports and was inspired by Converse’s Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers. All Star Automotive Group would go on to acquire a Baton Rouge Dodge dealership in 1989, followed by an Alexandria Toyota dealership in 1990 and a Chevrolet dealership in 1994. The company continued to flourish, and McKay bought Noland out in 2010. Today, All Star has 11 dealerships representing 13 franchises and nearly 800 employees.

 The McKay family, from left, Taylor, Matt, Sherri and Hays pose earlier this year for a portrait during the National Automobile Dealers Association Show in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The McKay family, from left, Taylor, Matt, Sherri and Hays pose earlier this year for a portrait during the National Automobile Dealers Association Show in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Like Noland, McKay has used his success in business to foster social change in the community he loves. He was recently nominated for the 2018 TIME Magazine Dealer of the Year, a national awards program that singles out accomplished automotive dealers with significant civic involvement.

One of the most powerful —and visible—projects McKay has driven is the recently opened McKay Automotive Technology Center, a $51 million, public-private workforce training facility at Baton Rouge Community College’s newly minted Ardendale Campus. Named for McKay’s father, the 83,000-square-foot center trains men and women in the high-tech automotive technician field through rigorous classroom work and modern laboratories with the latest equipment. Before the center was built, there was no facility in the region that could provide the kind of sophisticated training necessary to fill modern automotive jobs.

“These are great jobs, and we need local residents to have access to this kind of training,” says McKay.

The cause of education has been a constant priority for McKay and his wife, Sherri. It’s inspired by Matt McKay’s father’s 30-year career as a principal, teacher and coach, and his mother’s career as an employee of the East Baton Rouge Parish School System.

“I’ve been incredibly blessed, and I try to live by, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected,’” McKay says.

In 1991, McKay led the establishment of The Ascension Fund, which awards grants to teachers and schools to inspire excellence in public education. The fund is supported by the private sector to give teachers and schools extra resources for innovative projects beyond what the district provides. It’s intended to help teachers dream up new ideas for the classroom. Since it launched, the fund has granted more than $1.45 million to Ascension Parish educators. It has a $1.5 million endowment.

During the formation of the fund, Noland introduced McKay to John Davies, president and CEO of the Foundation. Davies, McKay says, taught him the basics about raising money, managing donor funds and making grants.

 “John taught me what philanthropy meant,” says McKay. “Every project I’ve been able to do is because of my partnerships with the Foundation.”

From what he learned, McKay also underwrote the Scholastic Read and Rise program to promote literacy in 24 low-income Baton Rouge area schools, and the McKays are a major contributor to the McKay Academic Center for Excellence at the Dunham School in Baton Rouge for students who learn differently.

They have also supported The Emerge Center in Baton Rouge, which is dedicated to therapeutic programs that optimize independent communication and social interaction skills for children and youth with a variety of learning issues and conditions, and THRIVE, a charter boarding school that gives students from underserved areas of Baton Rouge a chance to focus on academics away from troubling home settings. McKay has also supported the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank’s Hunger to Hope campaign.

“We spent three years traveling around and looking at different training models. We wanted a model that not only trained high school graduates, but that showed high school students what kinds of oppor-tunities were out there.”
— Matt McKay

When their son Taylor got involved in the sport of wrestling, the McKays helped build a wresting program at the Episcopal School, where both their sons were students. They also converted a warehouse to the nonprofit All Star Wrestling Club, a chartered USA Wrestling club that gives more local young people the chance to learn the sport and compete.

After seeing the impact of autism among friends and family, the McKays helped the Baton Rouge Area Foundation launch an autism support website that provides resource lists and quick information to families with children and youth with the disorder. More than 15,000 parents and guardians used the site (www. la.exceptionallives.org) within its first year of operation.

“What these families have to think about on a daily basis is overwhelming,” says Matt McKay. “Just basic things, like finding a dentist who knows how to treat a patient with autism is an example of what they have to consider. Compiling all this information in one place makes a big difference to families.”

For a decade, Matt McKay has been at work establishing an automotive training center to bring badly needed workforce training to the Capital Region. The dearth of relevant training opportunities in the quickly changing auto-motive field has been a nagging issue for employers like McKay. His partner in the project has been the Foundation and its Executive Vice President John Spain.

McKay and Spain have traveled to find the best examples of career high schools that teach trades, and of automotive training centers. They convinced public officials that the automotive training center would provide opportunities for Louisiana residents and boost the economy. And they have been patient; the training center took almost a decade’s worth of determination to build in Ardendale.

“We knew years ago that technician training was a big missing piece,” says McKay. “These are great jobs. An auto tech can make a lot of money.”

McKay believed it was critical that Baton Rouge open a top-notch training facility here in the region. For years, All Star has had to go to Houston to recruit technicians. Despite housing them in on-site apartments and paying them well, the company has consistently fought a 25% retention rate.

“Ultimately, they wanted to go home,” says McKay. “They wanted to go back to Houston to live and work near friends and family.” 

A chance meeting with Joe May, then president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, provided the initial spark to get the ball rolling. The two men were on a Baton Rouge Area Chamber canvass trip, and they found them-selves in agreement on the need for a modern automotive technician training program in Baton Rouge.

The East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority got involved, acquiring a 200-acre site in the Ardendale area of North Baton Rouge. Last year, the Baton Rouge Community College opened a branch campus with the McKay Automotive Training Center, and the East Baton Rouge Parish School System will open a career high school this fall with training opportunities for high school students.

“We spent three years traveling around and looking at different training models,” says McKay. “We wanted a model that not only trained high school graduates, but that also showed high school students what kinds of opportunities were out there.” 

McKay has been able to use his deep relationships in the field to recruit corporate partners including Toyota, Hunter Engineering, Boyce Machinery and others to donate equipment so that students can train on the latest technologies and graduate job-ready on day one.

“The key to me with Ardendale, and with other community projects I’ve been involved with, is that it’s a stake in the ground,” says McKay. “It’s a center point that says, ‘Here’s what can be done.’”