LUMBERTON — When it came to selling cars in Robeson County, no one has ever done it better than Lawrence H. “Sonny” Oliver.
“He put some iron on the street. He’s a legend,” said Lumberton businessman Bo Biggs, who remembers as a teenager washing cars during the summer at Jon-San Chevrolet and watching Oliver perform his magic. “His sales ability to sell cars was widely known.”
Oliver, who also opened the first Sun-Do convenience store in Lumberton in 1978 and then went on to open Oliver’s Oil Company in 1979, died recently at the age of 81.
“He was very intelligent and a good businessman,” said Horace Stacy, a Lumberton attorney and friend of Oliver’s for more than 50 years. “He did a lot of things for the community that people didn’t know about. He thought a lot about Lumberton and Robeson County.”
The son of the late Garvin Brooks “Bud” Oliver and Gladys Marie Britt Oliver, he attended the Long Branch Elementary School, Orrum and Lumberton high schools. He later attended what is now The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
During the Korean War, Oliver served in the U.S. Army. He was a member of the 101st Airborne Division, and was always proud of having been a paratrooper, said Chris Oliver, Oliver’s son.
Oliver’s son now heads Oliver’s Oil Company,named one of the top 100 privately owned businesses in the state eight out of nine years. He described his father as a “talker who loved people.”
“It was always said that if Daddy tapped you on the back you were going to buy a car,” Oliver said.
He sold cars for the former Jon-San Chevrolet from 1960 to 1982, and in 1976 is credited with selling 2,769 new and used cars.
Oliver was the leading salesman for General Motors for 15 consecutive years, and was inducted into the General Motors Hall of Fame as a member of the Honor Members Club.
“You would not believe the number of people who come up to me and tell me that Daddy sold them their first car,” Oliver said.
Coble Wilson Jr., a former Lumberton mayor who was part owner of Freeman Motor Company during the 1960s, recalls the strong but “friendly competition” he had trying to best Oliver in sales.
“He was a straight shooter,” Wilson said. “If you are going to compete against someone, he was the kind of guy you wanted to compete against.
“He was just a fine person, a real good guy,” Wilson said. “Over the years we would often share war stories about the days in the car business.”
Oliver credits his father with the success of the Sun-D convenience stores, that now total 15 throughout the area. The oil company is also thriving, with about 60 dealer sites throughout North Carolina and South Carolina.
“I think my father learned his good values of hard work and to always give something back to those in need from his mother,” Oliver said. “One of the things that he always told me about business is to make your customer happy but don’t promise things you can’t do.”
Oliver said that his father believed in helping people, including as a member of the Lumberton Jaycees.
“He gave a good deal back to the community,” Oliver said. “He just loved people.”