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Russell, Herman J. 1931(?)–

Herman J. Russell 1931(?)

Company executive

At a Glance

We develop. We build. We manage. We Own.

Bricks and Mortar Type of Guy

Gave Back to the Community


Until his retirement from day-today management in 1997, Herman Jerome Russell was the driving force behind his highly successful H. J. Russell and Company, a conglomerate that includes construction, property management, real estate development, airport concessions, and communications. With a work force that numbers over 1,500 in offices in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee and annual sales that top $150 million, H. J. Russell and Company is the most successful business in the Southern African American community, and Russell is among the most celebrated African American entrepreneurs in the nation. The many buildings that Russells companies have helped build-among them, the Harts-field International Airport, the Georgia Power Company headquarters building, the Coca-Cola Company world headquarters, and the Georgia Dome Stadium, all in Atlanta-are a testament to Russells hard work and ingenuity.

The youngest child of a plasterer and a maid, Russell and his seven siblings grew up in the Summerhill section of Atlanta, one of the citys oldest neighborhoods. From his father, he learned early the virtues of hard work and saving money. My father had me bring the sand and the food to the worksite, Russell reminisced to Russell Shaw of S/cy. It was part of me all my life. I never had any difficulty knowing what I wanted to be. Nor did he find saving money hard: He [my father] taught me the art of saving when I got my first job. I was eight years old, Russell recalled to Nations Business writer Michael Barrier. He told me, If you dont make but a dime, save it. When I went into construction I was ready. During his teenage years he was also driven by the desire to become an entrepreneur. At the age of 16 Russell bought his first parcel of land in Summerhill for $125. While a high school student and freshman at Tuskegee Institute, in Alabama, Russell and friends built a duplex on the property. When it was finished, Russell rented out the duplex and used the rent money to pay his college tuition.

In 1953, after completing his studies in building construction at Tuskegee Institute, Russell joined his fathers family plastering business, which specialized in small residential projects, such as renovations. Russell quickly gained a reputation for producing high quality work and was thus able to compete successfully against competitors.

At a Glance

Born circa 1931, in Atlanta, GA, son of Roger (a plasterer) and Maggie (a maid; maiden name, Googson) Russell; married Otelia Hackney; children: Donata, H. Jerome, Jr., Brent. Education: Graduated from Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), Alabama, B.S. (building construction), 1953.

Career: Founder and CEO of H.J. Russell and Company.

Awards/honors: Entrepreneur of the Year, National Black MBA Association, 1990; Horatio Alger Award, 1991; Junior Achievement Atlanta Business Hall of Fame, 1992.

Member: Atlanta Forum, Atlanta Chamber of Commerce; board of directors: H.J. Russell and Company, Citizens Trust Bank, Georgia Power Company, First Wachovia Corporation.

Addresses: c/o H.J. Russell & Company, 504 Fair St., S.W., Atlanta, GA 30313.

Upon his fathersdeath in 1957, Russell took over the company, renaming it H. J. Russell and Company two years later. Although during the 1950s African Americans were generally involved in only small-scale residential construction, Russell set his sights on larger projects. He quickly hired more workers and expanded into the construction of duplexes. These duplexes soon led to contracts for four- and eight-unit apartment buildings.

We develop. We build. We manage. We Own.

During the sixties, federal, state, and local government monies were allotted for residential construction and Russell took advantage of the opportunities available to further expand his operations into large-scale residential construction. despite the prejudice of the large, white-owned construction companies. russell recalled to Black Enterprise, Naturally the racism was there, but after I got an opportunity to do some jobs as a subcontractor for a white general contractor, I was home free. Because of my workmanship, I always got repeat work. Eventually Russells company was building apartment complexes with four hundred to five hundred units.

Unlike many development and construction companies, H. J. Russell and Company retained many of the structures it built, creating a separate entity to manage its many rental units. Russell told Del Marth of Nations Business about the conglomerates management and the real estate investment and development subsidiaries: I always looked at the chance of one hand feeding the other.

Russell acquired his first large subcontracting job in the late-1960s, when he successfully bid on one of the tallest structures in downtown Atlanta, the Equitable Life Assurance Building. Participating successfully in joint ventures was crucial to the success of Russells companies. By working as a partner with larger, more established companies, Russell and his employees were able to learn new and important skills. While many government contracts required a minority-owned business to be part of a joint venture in order to qualify for government funding, Russell always insisted that the partnership be a true one instead of a token. To Shaw, Russell said, Real joint ventures are going to have total participation. It is one of the finest ways to learn new techniques, adding, Joint ventures have enabled us to compete in the marketplace with some of the largest general contractors in the world.

Among H. J. Russell and Companys many Atlanta public projects are the City Hall Complex, Georgia Dome Stadium, Carter Presidential Center, Martin Luther King Community Center, Atlanta Botanical Gardens, and the underground shopping mall known as Underground Atlanta. Yet the firms smaller people-oriented projects have been important as well. Russell prides himself on having built affordable high-quality housing for those wishing to move back into the city and for senior citizens. One of these such housing developments is the Maggie Russell Tower, which Russell named in memory of his mother. The company also provided management services for the renovation of the Grady Memorial Hospital, where Russell was born. Even the location of the companys headquarters in a depressed part of Atlanta is a testimony to Russells commitment to the community as a whole.

In a successful conglomerate, diversification is critical. According to Russell, diversification enabled his company to never have a losing year in over forty years of business. In addition to construction-related enterprises, the conglomerate consists of communications and concessions subsidiaries. Russell entered the communications arena in the early 1960s by backing the Atlanta Inquirer, a weekly newspaper. I thought the young civil rights crusaders should have a voice. I felt I had an obligation to my people to tell them what was happening, Russell remembered in an Atlanta Magazine profile. For some time the conglomerate also included Russell-Rowe Communications, which operated a Macon, Georgia, network television station, though this firm was eventually sold. In the airport concessions field, Russell has been a winner as well. His Concessions International operations exist in primary airports in Los Angeles; Chicago; Dallas/Fort Worth; Hartfort, Connecticut; Louisville, Kentucky; Orlando, Florida; and St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. As concessions contracts at other airports expire, Russells company is up front with its bid for business.

Bricks and Mortar Type of Guy

That Russell believes in steady, managed growth is evident in the progress of his company, which for more than three decades has expanded incrementally. Ive always believed in a philosophy of controlled growth. There is no quick fix to success: it requires lot of hard work and lots of sacrifice, Russell told Shaw. Dependability is another crucial quality. H. J. Russell and Company is known for finishing its projects on schedule and within budget. To maintain his companies on their upward path, Russell looks for the brightest and best to staff them. He is fond of saying that he likes to hire people ten times sharper than himself. To keep such employees, he pays good salaries and benefits, and promotes a corporate culture in which the individuals work and opinion count.

For all his success and wealth, Russell has not lost sight of his origins. He is by his own account a bricks and mortar type of guy, often visiting the companys worksites and speaking directly with construction workers about the job at hand. To Shaw he said, Im at my best when I am out in the field. Because we have a large operation, I have to delegate, but I like to go out, see the projects, meet the people. According to Russell, while construction techniques and machinery have changed over the years, the human resource element is the same. I like it known that I care, and that Im not someone sitting in an ivory tower, he added.

Gave Back to the Community

Russell is well known for his philanthropy. To be successful in life you have to give back to the community. Business has a responsibility to the environment in which it operates, Russell explained to Carole Boston Weatherford of Minorities and Women in Business. He has lived up to his words, donating time and money to a slough of worthy causes, among them charitable and educational organizations. Stressing the importance of a good education, Russell created the Herman J. Russell Entrepreneurial Scholarship Foundation and donated a million dollars to his own alma mater. Through the decades he has also been active in local, state, and national politics.

After 45 years of running H. J. Russell and Company, Russell, at age 66, decided to retire from the daily management of the company. Its what I call semiretiring. Instead of working 16 hours a day, I want to work nine, and Im looking forward to it, Russell quipped to Paula M. White of Black Enterprise. To this end, Russell established a five-member board of directors, of which he is the chairman, and hired R. K. Sehghal as the conglomerates chief executive officer. Eventually Russells children, H. Jerome, Michael, and Donata, are slated to assume control of the family empire and are being groomed for critical positions through their work with the various H.J. Russell subsidiaries.


Atlanta Constitution, May 17, 1985, p.A26; May 24, 1985, p.A15; August 14, 1987, p.A7; December 2, 1987, p.A21; December 3, 1987, p.A60; March 15, 1990, p.D3; September 13, 1992, p.A14; February 5, 1992, p.B7; March 26, 1992, p.F1; March 27, 1992, p.D1; June 30, 1992, p.C1; July 14, 1992, p.F2; June 21, 1994, p. C1; March 9, 1995, p.B1; May 15, 1995, p.A1; May 18, 1995, p.C1; May 19, 1995, p.D1; August 20, 1996, p.B2.

Atlanta Journal, May 19, 1996, p. B1; August 21, 1996, p.A16.

Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution, November 24, 1985, p.A14, D2; November 6, 1986, p.XE13;May8, 1988, p.B1; July 1, 1990, p.H1;July 11, 1992, p. B9; December 12, 1992, p. A1; February 21, 1993, p. E1; May 20, 1995, p. C2; May 21, 1995, p. G2; February 25, 1996, p. R1; November 23, 1996, p. G3.

Black Enterprise, June, 1983, p. 11; June, 1987, pp. 176-84; June, 1990, pp. 302-04; September, 1996, pp. 20-21; April, 1997, p. 16; June, 1997, pp. 104-08; October, 1997, p. 19.

Construction Dimensions, pp. 10-11, 31-33.

Ebony, August, 1980, pp. 117-19.

Jet, February 7, 1989, p. 24; October 25, 1982, p. 40; January 15, 1981, p. 39; September 21, 1987, p. 33; June 5, 1989, p. 6; December 23, 1996, p. 34.

Minorities and Women in Business, September/October, 1992, pp. 32-33, 44.

Nations Business, January, 1987, pp. 58-59; August, 1996, pp. 18-25.

Sky Magazine, August, 1990, pp. 41-47.

USA Today, July 24, 1992, p. B1.

Jeanne Lesinski

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