LEESBURG — Try convincing businessman Darrel Finnicum that a life doesn’t turn based on the decisions you make.

A choice Finnicum made when he was an 18-year-old high school dropout and one his Finnicum Motor Co. partner, Mike McVey, made six months into McVey’s tenure with the company turned out to be instrumental in Finnicum’s car dealership becoming one of the most successful in the region.

“I don’t know how spiritual people might be, but I believe God brought Mike into my life at a time that I needed him most,” Finnicum said of the ex-Marine who promised his partner he’d give the car business a year, wanted to bow out after six months, but stuck around when his wife convinced him he needed to keep his word. “If Mike hadn’t come into the business, and if he hadn’t decided to keep his word when he was ready to look for something else, you and I wouldn’t be talking right now.

“There would be no Finnicum Motor Co.”

But it was some advice Finnicum heeded years ago that set him on a pathway that would turn his life around and make him one of the most unlikely business success stories in Southwest Georgia.

“I’d dropped out of high school and was delivering pizzas when my friend Tracey Ford introduced me to her dad, Dean,” Finnicum said. “I was at their house and Mr. Ford asked me where I was going to school and what grade I was in. I lied to him and told him I was a senior at Westover. Eventually, though, I told him I’d dropped out, but I think he already knew that.

“He asked me why I didn’t go back to school, and I told him I’d be embarrassed to be an 18-year-old freshman. I told him I’d catch all kinds of grief because I would be 20 or 21 before I graduated. He said, ‘You’re going to be 20 or 21 anyway, so you might as well spend that time finishing school.’ I promised him I’d finish.”

That subtle nudge helped alter Finnicum’s outlook on life so dramatically that, some 25 years later, he has an inventory of almost 500 vehicles at three dealerships and is recognized as one of the most successful young business leaders in the region. And just as his dealership’s motto is “Where a handshake still means something,” Finnicum has developed an anti-car salesman reputation as being a staunch man of his word.

“I was kind of at a crossroads early in my career when I went out on my own,” Finnicum said. “I was driving a pickup that a customer liked, so I sold it to him. A short while after the warranty ran out, the engine blew up. I thought about that for a while, and while I was within my right not to, I told him I’d have the engine repaired. That was about a $1,900, $2,000 hit. But it was also the right thing to do.”

Word of mouth quickly spread about Finnicum’s reputation as a straight shooter, and his little 10- to 15-car dealership started growing, to 40-50 cars, then to 70-80.

“Everyone says they deliver great customer service in this business, but I’ve always felt that that’s important before, during and after a sale,” he said. “Everyone’s as nice as they can be before and during a sale. But where the rubber meets the road is after. And I think that’s where we’re best.”

McVey, who had no experience with car sales before leaving the Marine Corps, struck up a friendship with Finnicum after buying a vehicle from him. Soon, McVey was bringing others to the lot. As the two grew closer and McVey’s hitch neared its planned end, Finnicum asked him if he wanted to take a stab at selling vehicles at his 1372 U.S. Highway 19 South dealership.

“I decided to give it a try because Darrel was someone I knew I could trust,” McVey said. “Even before he made me a partner, he allowed me to treat the business as if I had ownership even though I didn’t. He created an environment where there was a great deal of trust.

“And, yes, I had decided that this wasn’t for me when I first got started, but he told me just to give it the year I’d promised. And when I did, I haven’t looked back … and that was in 2005. Of course, the main reason is the bond that Darrel and I have built. We’re not only business partners, we’re best friends. And we’d remain best friends even without the business.”

Finnicum had no real plan for his life when he graduated Westover. He found a renewed sense of confidence when, attending summer school for three consecutive years, he graduated in 1991 at age 20. He tried college, attending Darton for a short period, and selling shoes.

“I’d always heard there was good money in selling cars,” Finnicum said. “I was 22 with no training, but I said what the heck. I got out the phone book, looked up Carl Gregory’s number, called and asked if they were hiring. They gave me a job, and I found that I liked it. I liked talking with people.

“I didn’t have any training, and soon after I got there a couple drove up in an old vehicle. They looked like they didn’t have a dime. The guys in the office said, ‘Go get ‘em,’ so I went out there cold. What was cool, though, was that I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t intimidated. And I made a sale. I said, ‘I can do this.’”

Despite his buddies’ ribbing about “being a car salesman all your life,” Finnicum got deeper into the business. A short while after starting at Carl Gregory, he met the sales manager at Fairway Toyota. The two clicked, so Finnicum accepted a job at the rival dealership.

The city’s newest car salesman learned many valuable lessons while working at Fairway, whose training program he lauded. But after receiving reprimands for his tardiness, Finnicum was fired after arriving for work two minutes late.

“I’m not going to lie, I cried a little bit,” he said. “But I realized later that that was one of the best things to ever happen to me. One thing it taught me is that, now, if I have a meeting, I’m always early. That incident helped me quit being a boy and become a man.”

Finnicum cold-called the local Honda dealership, got an interview and was hired on the spot. He worked there for three years, until the itch to own his own dealership grew too strong to resist.

“I got my own spot, a grass lot with 15-20 cars, as part of the Fairway Toyota group,” he said. “We did well there, and I asked to meet with the owner. I asked him if we could pave the lot, freshen the place up, but he said he didn’t want to put any money into the location. That’s when I started working on getting my dealer’s license.”

Another of life’s lessons presented itself when Finnicum started looking for financing to open his dealership.

“I went to the first banker, told him what I wanted to do — borrow around $100,000 to carry 10-12 cars at first,” he said. “I had decent credit, but the guy I talked with, who was a friend of mine, told me that didn’t matter. He showed me one of their directives that said, ‘Do not do a floor plan with a used car dealership.’

“I tried a couple of other banks and got pretty much the same thing.”

Frustrated, Finnicum turned to the man who’d had such a big influence in his life.

“I went to Mr. Ford, told him what I wanted to do, showed him my business plan,” Finnicum said. “He told me that he’d front me the money but that I would have to pay a certain amount of interest and pay everything off by a certain time. I told him I could do that, and he loaned me the money.

“I think one of the proudest things in my career was when I paid him off.”

Finnicum’s small business grew steadily, and when McVey came on board, it really took off. But when the recession hit around 2009, the young partners almost lost their business.

“The recession was bad enough,” Finnicum said, “but I had personal issues, too. I went through a very rough divorce, and I became depressed. I was so fortunate that Mike and Alisha Shiver, who ran the office, were there at that time, because even though I was present, my mind was not. We also had a couple of our salesman leave about that time, and the place where we got our floor plan wanted to cut our credit in half. So it was a real struggle.

“But Mike basically took the reins of the dealership, and we battled through it for the next couple of years. We definitely were on the verge of going under.”

Thanks mostly to McVey’s leadership, Finnicum Motors did turn their business around. A grateful Finnicum gave his friend a 20 percent stake in the business and, in 2014, made him a full 50-50 partner.

“In any business and in any friendship, you’re going to have your ups and downs,” Finnicum said. “But Mike and I, we have each other’s backs.”

Once the dealership got rolling again, the partners brought Anthony Jenkins in as their detail man. Jenkins was working at a car wash at the time, but one of Finnicum’s salesmen saw the work he was doing and asked him to come and meet the partners.

“Once we brought Anthony on, we knew we’d made a smart choice,” Finnicum said. “I kept hearing customers say, ‘Y’all have the cleanest cars around.’ Anthony just has a great work ethic.”

Jenkins said he came by his attitude about his job honestly.

“I came from a big family, and my dad worked hard all his life,” he said. “He had to stop schooling to go to work. Then, when he and my mom divorced, I saw how hard she worked to feed all of us and pay the bills.

“I was a little nervous about leaving a job I’d been at for five years, but I soon knew I’d made the right choice. Working for Darrel is not like working for a boss. I see him more as a brother, as part of the family. And he has always pushed me to work hard.”

With a dealership at 1016-B South Martin Luther King Blvd. in Americus and a recently opened dealership at 1425 U.S. Highway 82 just on the Lee County side of the Lee/Dougherty County line, Finnicum has proven himself an astute businessman. Both he and McVey give every indication that they’re not through growing, though.

“I will always remain humble,” Finnicum said, “so I don’t want this to sound like I’m bragging. But I want us to be the very best dealership around. I want us to continue to grow throughout the South.”

A bit of advice for skeptics: Life has shown that it wouldn’t be wise to bet against Finnicum.

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