While growing up in the tiny western Kentucky town of Bremen, little did Carol Martin Gatton know the impact he was destined to have on so many. Although he would later call himself a businessman, his business dealings really are just a way to support his philanthropic habit. Giving away money is what he loves to do, and at 83, he plans to keep on giving.
“Now that I’m past 80, I’ve thought about retiring,” he says. “But I think I’ll just keep on making more money so I can keep on giving it away.”
Gatton, known to his friends as Bill, made his money the old-fashioned way: He earned it. His work ethic and business sense, along with an excellent education, enabled him to make smart decisions and investments that paid off.
His business sense and competitive nature surfaced at an early age. He says he always wants to be the best, and he relates instances of this quest to be No. 1. He recalls that, when selling magazines and seeds for his elementary school fundraisers, he would sell more than all the other kids combined.
Frank Winston, Gatton’s attorney of more than 20 years, sees this trait on a daily basis.
“He always wants to win. But I can honestly say, he wants to win fairly,” Winston says. “He would never take advantage of someone, but he does not ever want to come in second place.”
Growing up on a farm in Muhlenberg County, Gatton knew the meaning of hard work. In addition to his required farm chores, he grew watermelons and sold them on the side of the road in the summer. Not satisfied with his limited clientele, he took his watermelons to shopkeepers in the area, which increased his sales.
After graduating from high school as valedictorian of his class, Gatton had earned and saved enough money to head off to Lexington to attend the University of Kentucky.
While there in the 1950s, he got a part-time job selling cars at L.R. Cooke Chevrolet/Cadillac. When he was not immediately successful at sales, he was offered a job in the parts department. His experience taught him that there was money to be made in car sales rather than an hourly wage in car parts. So he stayed in sales, which turned out to be a lucrative decision.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from UK, Gatton served two years in the U.S. Army, and then earned a master’s degree in finance and banking from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. With his MBA in hand, he moved back to Kentucky, where he accepted a job in banking at Security Trust in Lexington. After about a year, he knew he wanted to be in business for himself, so he borrowed some money and established Bill Gatton Motors in Owensboro, a Volkswagen dealership. This was only the third VW dealership in the state, but it became the first of 10 dealerships he would own in his lifetime.
In the 1960s, Gatton became involved in the banking industry, starting out as director of Central Bank and Trust in Owensboro but eventually serving as chairman of the board of Area Bancshares of Owensboro, a company that owned about 20 banks. Area Bancshares was sold to BB&T in the early 2000s.
Gatton says he has made most of his money in banking but credits the car business with providing the cash flow so he could invest in real estate and banks.
No matter which part of his business requires his attention, he gives it his all.
“He can analyze a situation and actually have a picture in his mind of what the outcome will be,” says Danny Dunn, an employee and advisor to Gatton for more than 25 years. “He has amazing business vision.”
Winston agrees and says that Gatton has complete confidence in himself.
“He never doubts that he will be successful,” Winston says. “Anything he is into, he gives 100 percent, devoting himself completely. This is just part of what makes him an outstanding entrepreneur.”
Gatton’s favorite part of the business deal?
“I like making investments that will make money,” he says. “The more money I can make, the more I can give away.”
And give it away he does. Although he says he doesn’t actually have a list of recipients of his donations, he has given away more than $40 million.
“I don’t do it for the publicity,” he says. “I just do it because I enjoy it.”
Gatton says he’s inspired by the proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
“That’s what a good education does—it feeds you for your lifetime,” he says.
Gatton has succeeded greatly at buying real estate and then selling it for profit. Tim Haymaker, a real estate developer in Lexington, has worked with him on many projects.
“He is driven by helping others through education,” says Haymaker, owner of Haymaker Development Company. “He believes education is the answer.”
Gatton donated 15 acres for Rosa Parks Elementary in Lexington and recently sold 65 acres at a greatly reduced price to Fayette County Public Schools to build a new high school off Winchester Road. He also has donated land for the YMCA sites in the Beaumont and Hamburg areas of Lexington.
Haymaker says Gatton’s goal always is to build the community as a whole.
“Although I try to give him ideas on how to leverage the land he buys, he does so much research, he usually knows more about the project than I do,” Haymaker says. “Even when he’s not at work, his mind is working.”
Through the years, Gatton has donated to community needs and causes, but education continues to be his primary target. He has been a generous contributor to schools in Virginia, Tennessee and Pennsylvania, but it is clear that his heart is in Kentucky.
He has made significant donations to Kentucky Wesleyan University, Transylvania University and individual schools and school districts around the state. Two of the largest recipients are Western Kentucky University and the University of Kentucky.
The Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science at Western Kentucky University is home to high-performing high school juniors and seniors who are dual-enrolled in high school and college. This residential program enables students to take college courses—up to 60 credit hours during their last two years of high school—so that when they graduate high school, they are ready to enter college as juniors.
Although the academy bears his name, Gatton says he doesn’t deserve any credit for its creation or its amazing accomplishments.
“I just wrote them a check,” he says. “They did all the work.”
He credits Dr. Julia Roberts, executive director of the Gatton Academy and Mahurin Professor of Gifted Education, for her dedication in establishing the program.
“Mr. Gatton has always been interested in educational opportunities,” Roberts says. “He understood the impact we could make with an academy like this.”
Roberts explains that the Gatton Academy is open to any student in Kentucky, regardless of economic background. Those with the academic history and interest in pursuing advanced careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are encouraged to apply. The academy covers tuition, room and board.
In the school’s short history, it has accepted students from almost all of Kentucky’s 120 counties, allowing 60 per class. The school is in the process of expanding both the building and number of students it can accept.
“Mr. Gatton was the lead donor in our efforts to expand,” Roberts says. “Next year, we will be able to accept 100 students per class, giving even more Kentucky students this opportunity.”
Mike Richey, vice president for philanthropy and chief philanthropy officer at UK, says Gatton understands the power of education.
“He wants all students in Kentucky to succeed,” Richey says. “So he helps philanthropically, but he also gives of his time.”
In addition to being a member of the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees, where he shares his experience and advice, Gatton is one of the school’s largest donors. He donated $14 million to UK in 1995, becoming the largest single donor in the history of the school. His donation to the College of Business and Economics, where he earned his bachelor’s degree, resulted in the board of directors changing the name of the school to the Carol Martin Gatton College of Business and Economics.
“Mr. Gatton’s gift has transformed business education at UK and in Kentucky,” says David W. Blackwell, dean of the Gatton College of Business and Economics. “That gift elevated the college by enabling a large investment in hiring very accomplished senior faculty members and supporting their teaching and research. That gift continues to make us better every year.”
Blackwell says Gatton not only helped out financially, but also shows up in person.
“As a longtime member of the Gatton College Dean’s Advisory Council, he shares his business genius with UK and the Gatton College to continue helping us to improve,” Blackwell says. “Given his long years of deep involvement, he has met with many faculty members, students and alumni over the years. He continues to inspire us and support us.”
In 2014, Gatton donated $20 million toward the renovation and expansion of UK’s student center.
“His donation is more than phenomenal,” Richey says. “Mr. Gatton sees the student center as the front door to UK, and with the addition of this outstanding center, he knows it will bring more students here.”
With plans to open in early 2018, this $175 million project will completely transform the original student union building that opened in 1938 and replace the additions that were built in 1963 and 1982.
The new student center will house a state-of-the-art cinema, a blue-box theater and The Cats Den entertainment venue, along with lounges and even rooftop terraces with exterior fireplaces.
“The design teams are telling us it will be one of the most remarkable student centers in North America and beyond,” says John H. Herbst, executive director of the UK Student Center. “This is an exciting time to be at the University of Kentucky and to see this dramatic transformation.”
With the vast amounts of money Gatton has donated to so many institutions, it is fair to say that countless people have and will benefit from his generosity. Although he expects nothing in return for his donations, he has hopes for those students who enjoy the fruits of his giving.
“I know that money is not the most important thing in life, but I hope these students are successful financially and then give back to their community someday,” he says. “In the next 20 to 30 years, if they are prosperous, they can help out the next generation.”