Built to last

Herman J. Russell was only 16 years old when he bought a vacant lot in Summerhill from the city of Atlanta to build his first rental property. He hasn’t stopped building since.

Since he announced his retirement as chairman and CEO of H.J. Russell & Co. in October last year, the 72-year-old Russell continues to work on the redevelopment of the Castleberry Hill historic district where his office is located. Russell has invested more than $300 million in the area on features including a 200-room hotel, a 450-unit apartment complex, loft apartments, a restaurant and retail.

Russell says the Castleberry Hill redevelopment is probably his proudest achievement. But over 50 years, he has helped change the skyline of Atlanta with the construction of the Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport, the Coca-Cola world headquarters, the Georgia World Congress Center, Turner Field, the Georgia-Pacific building and Westside Village.

While a senior at Tuskegee University, Russell started the H.J. Russell Plastering Co., which in 1953 became H.J. Russell & Co. Throughout the early 1960s, he developed rental properties, and in 1962, he received the coveted project of plastering the Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, which helped build a name for his firm.

In 1968, Russell became the largest U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development housing builder in the Southeast. That same year, he picked up projects including the Equitable Building downtown and the Citizens Trust Bank.

H.J. Russell continued to grow through the 1970s, but it was in the 1980s that the construction firm saw its most dramatic growth with the Hartsfield project, as well as the Atlanta Gas Light headquarters, Coca-Cola headquarters, Wachovia Bank Operations Center, Atlanta City Hall Complex and the Lakewood Amphitheater.

In the 1990s through today, Russell’s notable projects include the Georgia Dome, Turner Field and Phillips Amphitheater, as well as the Castleberry Hill redevelopment.

“I was able to realize that the area had lots of potential,” Russell says of the Castleberry Hill neighborhood. “The area had lots of potential because it was only a 15-minute walking distance from the heart of downtown Atlanta.”

Today, H.J. Russell & Co. employs nearly 700 people, posts more than $225 million in annual revenue and manages more than 12,000 apartment homes or public housing units.

Russell spoke with Smart Business about his career in the construction business and how the region has changed in the last half-century.

Why did you decide to retire?

It’s time for me to turn it over to new leadership. My son (Michael) is totally ready for the job. He is well-trained for the job.

Why did you decide to stay within the family to choose your successor?

My son was working for us ever since he was 8 years old, and he has been around the company enterprise all his life. He went to the University of Virginia, studied civil engineering and got his MBA, and he has his Ph.D. from the Russell Institute of Hard Knocks, so he’s ready. It was very easy for me to make that decision.

When he finished college, he went to work for one of the well-known architects in Atlanta — John Portman — and he worked for him for about four years. And he called me and said, ‘Dad, I’m ready to join your organization’ after the four years.

He has worked in all fields. First, he was a laborer in the ditches. I put all of my kids to work; as soon as they were able to pick up a pick, they start digging.

What is your favorite development project of your career?

There are so many. I wouldn’t say I have a favorite one. There are just so many significant projects that I have had the good fortune to build. I would say probably what I’m doing now in the area of my office building is the most significant one because I built my office building 45 years ago and the area that I built in was a rough area, lots of crime, lots of heavy industry.

It was not really suitable at that time for our office building. But I was able to realize that it had lots of potential. The area had lots of potential because it was only a 15-minute walking distance from the heart of downtown Atlanta.

We’ve invested over $300 million in revitalizing that area. I just finished, over two years ago, a 200-room hotel, a restaurant, loft apartments, retail, a 450-unit mixed income apartments. It’s just exciting.

What has been the biggest challenge of your career?

Of course, the biggest challenge is always bringing along your people, qualified people. The human resource part of getting people ready to be leaders with good training, keeping your eyes on the ball, making sure you have the best education program for your people.

That’s always been our No. 1 philosophy. Your people are greatest assets. They can make you or break you.

How has commercial development changed around Atlanta since you started?

It’s a different city. When I first started, the population of Atlanta probably was about 40,000. Now you have a half a million. In the metropolitan area, you have over 4 million. It’s a big difference.

It’s one of the finest education cities in the country. We have developed high tech, we have some of the largest Fortune 500 companies headquartered out of Atlanta, so it’s just a good area to be in.

Did you always know you wanted to be in construction?

There’s no doubt about that. I’ve been an entrepreneur ever since I was 8 years old. I had a paper route, and a shoe shine parlor.

But my Dad was in it, I was born in it, and there is such satisfaction to the soul when you can build a building that you know will always be there for generation after generation. And it’s a part of improving the quality of life for people, so you get great satisfaction from that.

What do you plan to do now with your spare time?

You must remember that I have my pet projects and that I’m still building for my personal portfolio around the neighborhood where my office is. I bought the land years ago.

I have about 65 acres right in the neighborhood, and it will probably take me the next five years to complete the project with everything I want to do.

What is the greatest business lesson you’ve learned over your career?

To be honest. Make sure that you give your best every day. With every project, you have to give 100 percent. Make sure that you never take on any more than you can oversee. How to reach: H.J. Russell & Co., (404) 330-1000 or www.hjrussell.com