JA19 web - Page 41

t is instructive for those of us in the business
world to look back on some of Georgia’s great captains of industry and reect on their career accomplishments. We can learn from them.
In my case, let’s start 45 years ago. I did something
few, if any, Harvard Business School alums ever did before
or after: refused a job offer from the famed “millionaire
maker” Trammell Crow. My decision was never in doubt,
however, because I had a chance to work for another real
estate icon— Tom Cousins. And I never looked back.
This Georgian, now an active octogenarian, is simply
one of a kind. A consummate developer starting with
manufactured homes and gravitating to the largest
office building this side of New York City or Chicago, he
is an even better man. His prodigious efforts to resuscitate Atlanta’s East Lake area since 1995 are well known
and, with help of his good friends Warren Buffet and
Julian Robertson, he has established a national model
for urban revitalization which has spawned 20 more like
Purpose Built Communities around the country in
places like Omaha, Charlotte, Indianapolis, New Orleans
and Columbus, Ohio with 35 more in the planning stage.
Tom calls this ground breaking venture “golf with a
purpose” and takes pride in the teaching lessons it
aparts to all ages, particularly the importance of maintaining the integrity of the game. Jack Nicklaus, a longtime protégée of Bobby Jones, was quoted in a Fortune
article in 2001 that “I rst played East Lake when I
turned pro and didn’t see it again until my son Michael
was at Georgia Tech. It had become such a tough area
that there might be a shooting, or you never knew what,
across the street. What Tom did is unbelievable.”
In that same article, trying to explain his motives,
Tom says: “This all comes from a deeply held, but not
advertised, Christian belief: To whom much is given,
much shall be required. That is deep within you.” The
results are evident. As the late Eva Davis, President of the
Tenants Association at East Lake Meadow, once famously
said: “They tore down hell, and they built heaven. Now
we are living in paradise.” Dan DuPree, a past president of
Cousins Properties and now CEO of Preferred Apartment
Communities, perhaps says it best: “Tom is that rare man
who does the right thing for the right reasons.”
Like all good leaders Tom knows how to simplify
things and cut to the chase. Lloyd Whitaker, the former
President and CEO of Cousins Mortgage and Equity
Investments, tells it this way: “I was once in a car with
Tom on the way to pitch a complicated deal, and I knew
he did not really know the details of our position very
well. I was rattling off the details, when he interrupted
me, and said, ‘Lloyd, you’re telling me much more than I
need to know.’ I shut up, he made the pitch and we got
the deal. That is the essence of the Tom Cousins I knew.”
Most importantly, Tom is a people person. People
have always liked and respected him— his employees,
bankers, contractors, investors and even other developers.
This trait came in particularly useful when his monumental Omni International complex, at the time one of the
largest mixed use projects in the country, ran into serious
nancial trouble during the 1974-1977 real estate depression. Trying to lease the 800,000 square feet of office
space, I did my best to put a nger in the dike, but it
was to no avail. Thankfully, Tom’s nancial backers
remained steadfast and he was able to hold on
until Ted Turner and CNN came calling.
Speaking of those challenging times, then-President
Cecil Conlee described them
this way: “It was a battle for survival. Tom and I were a
team working 24/7 to persuade our banks and other
creditors to work with us while we tried to navigate
through the nancial maelstrom. Someone described
our challenge as trying to convert a sinking ship into a
submarine. Many of our competitors went bankrupt and
I occasionally felt that was our inevitable fate. However,
Tom remained ever optimistic that we would ultimately
prevail. His optimism persuaded me to stay the course.
We did and we eventually succeeded. This display of
leadership was truly inspirational.”
Nor was it just bricks and mortar with Tom. He
understood the value that sports teams would add to his
developments, particularly Downtown and brought the
NBA St. Louis Hawks and NHL Flames to Atlanta—
showcased in his then state of the art Omni Coliseum.
Tom helped put Atlanta on the professional sports map,
along with Ted Turner and the Smith family. Nor was
Tom a slouch himself when it came to athletics. A
member of the University of Georgia Men’s Varsity
Swimming Team, he later enthusiastically took up golf,
even besting Jack Nicklaus years later in a friendly
round at the Atlanta Country Club. Tom was the third
annual recipient in 1993 of the Bill Hartman Award
which recognizes former varsity athletes from UGA who
have demonstrated excellence in their profession. This
was followed 7 years later by a Lifetime Achievement
Award at the Atlanta Sports Awards.
Tom’s most enduring attribute, however, has to be his
resolute faith which resonates with everyone. An early
devotee of prayer breakfasts, he does not hesitate to quietly share his faith with others. This as much as anything has commended him in my eyes. Tom is a fundamentally good man who has lived out his faith throughout his entire life. A beacon of hope. A Rock of Gibraltar.
He had his losses and his disappointments, but is living
testimony of an old Korean parable: “Get knocked down 7
times, get up 8.” His full time job now, after retiring from
head of Cousins Properties in 1992, is to raise money to
distribute it to needy causes through his generous family
foundations. It is no wonder that Tom was named
Philanthropist of the Year in 2015 by the Atlanta Chapter
of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.
Tom is a passionate collector of Native American Art
of all descriptions— paintings, sculpture and other artifacts that decorated the CPI Headquarters for many years.
I can assure you had he been a chief himself he would
have been less Sitting Bull and more Geronimo— a
valiant and tenacious warrior, yet all the while deeply
respecting his adversaries and paying homage to his
tribe’s many blessings. Tom Bell, former Chief Executive
Officer of Cousins Properties succinctly puts it this way:
“There are many smart developers, but what differentiates
Tom from the pack is his unique combination of foresight and courage to enable him to accept signicant risk,
while possessing the condence to execute on his vision.”
Finally, John Maxwell, the author of The 21
Indispensable Qualities of a Leader, may have had Tom
Cousins in mind when he penned these words: “It’s true
that charisma can make a person stand out for a
moment, but character sets a person apart for a lifetime.”
Philip K. Curtis is a partner with the executive search firm of Olmstead, Lynch
& Curtis LLC, specializing in real estate assignments, and is the author of The
Curtis Collection, an anthology of his poems.
Cousins inspects a model of the Omni International.
The beginnings of a basketball franchise in Atlanta.
Cousins with First Tee kids at East Lake Golf Club.


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