Propelled by the Great Depression, this Black family-owned construction firm has changed the Atlanta skyline

BY Preta Peace Namasaba March 24, 2024 7:09 AM EDT
The Russell family. Photo credit: The Atlanta Inquirer

The Great Depression caused economic turmoil marked by high unemployment levels and extensive decline in business. Amidst the crisis was a young Herman Jerome “H.J.” Russell who wanted to help out his family. Jobs were scarce and his father couldn’t find work. The eight-year-old decided to become his own boss and job creator, continuing with this entrepreneurial mindset his whole life. With over $250 million in annual revenue, his construction firm H. J. Russell & Company has been changing the Atlanta skyline for over half a century.

The youngest of eight children, Russell began tending the family’s chickens at the age of six. He had a paper route at eight years old and was mixing mortar for his father’s plastering company by age 11. Russell soon started a shoe-shining business and sold Coca-Cola. At 14, he went to the Atlanta City Council (the Board of Aldermen at the time) requesting the rezoning of a lot that the city owned so he could expand his business. The segregation he experienced before the Aldermen changed his trajectory.

“I got nervous in front of all the white aldermen. I also had a stuttering problem at that time. One of them looked at me. He used the n-word and asked, ‘Why can’t you shine shoes on your front porch?’ That’s when I was reborn,” Russell said of his early encounter with racial discrimination in business conditioned him.

Russell was just 16 when he purchased his first property – a small parcel of land for $125 in 1946.  A high school sophomore, he realized that the returning World War II servicemen would drive demand for housing. He used the money earned from his plastering jobs to finance the building of a duplex on the site. Russell learned how to draw a budget for a building project, negotiate the price of materials and have patience during the years it took to complete the project. When it was completed, Russell used the rent to pay for his college education. He held on to the property for more than two decades, selling it in 1987.

After earning a degree in building construction from the Tuskegee Institute (later Tuskegee University) in Alabama, Russell began working on small-scale plastering and repair services. He inherited his father’s plastering company when the older Russell died in 1957. The business then known as the Rogers Russell Plastering Company was a basement operation growing around $15,000 annually. Russell applied a methodical, strategic, and thrifty approach to building the company. He soon took on larger projects that ranged from home building to real estate investment.

“As a young entrepreneur growing up in Atlanta with all the challenges African Americans experienced just being African American, you can imagine that the business world was no less challenging. But the key here is that it was challenging, it was not impossible. I worked hard to focus on my business, ensuring that it was competitive and maintained a consistent reputation of honesty and good workmanship,” Russell explained how he built a thriving business in an adverse climate.

Within a few years, Russell’s business portfolio had expanded to include general contracting services through H. J. Russell Construction Company. His track record of successful joint partnerships on large-scale projects with white-owned construction companies bolstered his business reputation across public and private sectors in the 1960s and 1970s. Russell grew and diversified his construction empire, owning several construction and real estate companies; H. J. Russell and Company, H. J. Russell Construction Company, H. J. Russell Plastering Company, Paradise Management Inc., DDR International, and Southeast Land Development Company. The construction businesses were reorganized under H. J. Russell and Company in 1994, generating around $150 million in annual revenues.

Russell diversified his business interests by adding communications, concessions, and sports franchises to his portfolio. He also expanded his construction partnerships to include residential, educational, commercial, and recreational structures. He was a key covert financial backer of the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the creation of the “New South” that emerged with the election of Atlanta’s first Black mayor, Maynard H. Jackson Jr. He was the first Black member of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and the second African-American to serve as its president. Before the age of forty, Russell owned a portfolio of almost two thousand rental units, a property management company, and an insurance agency.

By the early twenty-first century, H. J. Russell and Company was the largest Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) real estate firm in the United States. Having helped construct much of the Atlanta skyline including landmarks like Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the Georgia Dome, Philips Arena (later State Farm Arena), and Turner Field, he retired from the company. Russell had nurtured his children to carry on his vision and left the leadership mantle to them.

Today, Michael B Russell, CEO and his brother Jerome Russell, President run H. J. Russell and Company. Under their leadership, the firm has built the new $1 billion Atlanta Falcons stadium, the $2.7 billion DFW Airport renovations, the $93 million Mississippi Aquarium construction and others. The Russell empire also includes Concessions International, a hospitality company that operates the famed Paschal’s Restaurant in Castleberry Hill and restaurants in airports across the country.

For the Russells, the impact of the Great Depression lives on – albeit positively.

“When I was a kid, I learned the value of a dollar. I would religiously save anywhere between 10 percent to 40 percent of my earnings…How I operated my life was how I ran my company. I budgeted for everything. I didn’t leave anything to chance,” Russell said of his life and business strategy.