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Automotive dynasties merge
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Two long-standing Covington car dealerships have become one with the recent acquisition of Walker Harris Autos by Ginn Motor Company.

The sale of the family-owned Walker Harris Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge dealership to Ginn Motor Company owner Billy Fortson was finalized Friday.

Walker Harris Autos and Ginn Motor Company are two of Newton County's oldest car dealerships. Ginn Motor Company was established in 1922 and Walker Harris was established in 1951.

"We're elated that a local person purchased our business," said Tony Harris, son of Walker Harris and a salesperson at the dealership. "We're very confident that he will uphold the traditions here."

Originally established at the corner of Emory Street and Washington Street in downtown Covington by Walker Harris, the dealership sold only used-cars at first, according to Tony.

In 1963 Walker Harris acquired a Plymouth dealership. Business was good and high performance muscle cars were selling like hotcakes for $2,897 at one time, remembered Stan Harris, Tony's brother, and the principal dealer of Walker Harris Autos. In 1967 soon after acquiring a Chrysler dealership, Walker Harris moved the family business to its current location at 5190 U.S. Highway 278.

From there Walker Harris Autos went on to acquire a Dodge dealership in 1974 and became the longest-running five-star Chrysler dealership in Georgia, winning the award for close to 30 years according to Tony.

A hard sell

The decision to sell Walker Harris Autos was made six months ago when Stan was diagnosed with a serious illness. Tony said the family had a discussion and decided that they didn't feel they could manage the dealership without Stan at its head.

"Stan was the heart of the business," Tony said. "We knew that without him this might come about."

According to Tony, Ginn Motor Company was the first car dealership to cross the family's mind when they made the decision to look for a buyer. Though several dealerships expressed interest in purchasing the dealership, Tony said the family really wanted to sell to another local dealership.

While the financial details of the acquisition are private, Tony said the entire closing process took close to six months. All employees of Walker Harris will be kept on with the acquisition

"I want them to do well so badly," Tony said. "We could not have asked anybody to be more accommodating than Billy Fortson."

Stan, who began helping out at the family dealership in 1963 and went on to become dealer principal in 1979, said it will be hard leaving the business which has been his home for so many years.

"It's been my livelihood," Stan said. "It's basically been everything. It's a hard decision to make to basically turn the reins over."

Walker Harris, 86, said he also feels sad that the family business had to be sold.

Since fully retiring in 1998, Walker, a former mayor of Covington from 1963-1969, has traveled to the family dealership nearly every day to share lunch with his sons.

"I've had many good years," said Walker of the dealership. "I hated to get out."

Fortson, who began working at Ginn Motor in 1969 before acquiring the company in 1987, said customers of Walker Harris Autos can continue to "expect what they've experienced in the past."

 Fortson said he will be moving a few key people from Ginn Motor Company, located on the Access Road, to the Walker Harris premises.

"It shouldn't change," said Fortson of the Walker Harris dealership which sells Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep vehicles and the Ginn Motor dealership which sells Chevrolets. "We're selling two different, very good products."

Working for a family business, Tony says he was called upon to perform all sorts of odd jobs over the years including cutting the grass in front of the business, washing the dealership windows and washing the cars.

"We do it all," Tony said. "In a family business you learn to do every job."

Though leaner times came in the 1970s and 1980s, Walker Harris Autos persevered by relying on the tools which had brought them success in the first place - customer service and "treating people right," said Tony.

According to Stan, though the dealership had hard times, they were able to turn a profit every year.

"This is in the true essence of the word a family business," said Tony of Walker Harris which currently employs four members of the Harris family. "All the good and the bad that comes with a family business we had. But we had much more good than bad."