Iconic Atlanta Developer Builds on Family Legacy
In 2003, Michael Russell became CEO of the Atlanta-based H.J. Russell & Company. His father, Herman, had started the firm 50 years earlier as a plaster business and built it into the nation’s largest African American-owned construction-services company.
Under the elder Russell’s leadership, the firm had defined the Atlanta skyline, building iconic structures including Atlanta’s Olympic Stadium, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the Coca-Cola Headquarters, and the Georgia World Congress Center.
The company was also a longtime pillar of the civil rights movement, both financially and otherwise. In the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would regularly hold meetings with other civil rights leaders at Herman J. Russell’s home.
Michael Russell worked his way up through his father’s real estate empire, starting in his teens with the tough job of preparing units recently vacated by tenants. He learned about the business from the bottom up, which prepared him to run the company and inspired thoughts about what he would accomplish as CEO. The company’s past and his father’s legacy were unassailable, but when Russell looked ahead, he saw fresh challenges and opportunities.
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“We were looking to expand into new geographical areas,” he says. “We had primarily been an Atlanta- or Georgia-based contractor. We worked in other markets, but we never had a consistent presence outside of Georgia.”
Over the next decade, Russell worked with his family to expand their operations into Texas, North Carolina and Alabama. The company built the University of North Carolina-Charlotte’s 49ers Football Complex, renovated terminals at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, and completed the National Center for Bioethics at Tuskegee University.
But Russell didn’t forget his roots: The company helped construct Mercedes-Benz Field, home to the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
- Region: Atlanta, GA
- Industry: Construction
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Then Russell got a call that would add to the company’s civil rights legacy: Help build the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. H.J. Russell & Company was selected as the project’s construction management at-risk firm, monitoring the buildout of the 400,000-square-foot facility, 60% of which is below ground. When the museum broke ground in February 2012, the company supervised the 70-foot excavation needed for the building and made sure it wouldn’t destroy an underground water table or destabilize nearby buildings like, say, the Washington Monument.
When the museum opened in 2016, Russell called it an awesome opportunity. But these days, his eyes are looking toward the future.
“What we’ve done in 15 years is not as relevant as we move forward,” he says. “You have to continue to evolve and look at your businesses and see their relevance in today’s marketplace.”
These days, Russell is focused on scaling up staff as he reformats H.J. Russell & Company’s property management and development businesses. For that, Russell leans on his Vistage Chair and group, who he says have helped him discover new markets and opportunities the company can pivot to with their considerable resources.
“As my Vistage Chair likes to say, ‘Create an unfair advantage in the marketplace,’ ” Russell says. “How do I continue to look for ways to create that unfair advantage and grow our business so we can be sustainable for the next 10 to 20 years?”
The power of peers
Russell joined Vistage in 2009 on a friend’s recommendation. It came during a time in Russell’s career when he needed a better sounding board to deal with internal company issues. “I felt that I was on an island trying to make decisions by myself,” he says.
Russell’s Vistage group in Atlanta has helped him overhaul his hiring practices so that he brings in executives who are the right fit for the company. Specifically, Russell hired an industrial psychologist to make sure the work style of new hires meshed with their colleagues and the company overall.
“We make sure that we take the time to understand their own work style and their triggers,” Russell says. “One of the biggest expenses of organizations is making the wrong hire and then having to go back out in the marketplace. It’s so much loss, so much opportunity cost around that.”
Russell has also worked to integrate the next generation of family members into the company, starting them in various jobs just as his father did with him, his brother H. Jerome and their sister, Donata. That generational development — he calls them “G3” — is crucial to Russell’s plan to continue growing the company and making it sustainable for the next 20 years, he says.
“We just try to be deliberate about getting them in roles where they can learn and grow,” Russell says. “We set expectations for their role and set expectations for their managers, so they treat this next generation of family members as employees and hold them accountable for doing their job every day.”
Russell has also taken to heart the statistics surrounding family businesses, knowing that second-generation businesses only have a 30% success rate — and third-generation businesses even less. For Russell, G3 is about ensuring the long-term success of his company and family.
“Some of what we do today doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to do the same thing tomorrow,” says Russell, who was recently named to the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s “Power 100,” which highlights the city’s most influential residents. “We’re trying to keep as entrepreneurial as we can, which allows people to leverage what we do today into possibly something different tomorrow.”