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Family Business Leadership and Values Shaped Atlantas Future

By Craig E. Aronoff, Ph.D.

Back in the 1950s, Birmingham, AL and Atlanta, GA were in a tight race to emerge as the premier metropolis of the southeastern United States. While one might question the importance of being the biggest city in a socially and economically backward region that was still mired in an American apartheid, some could see the future.

Birmingham was a manufacturing city built on a base of steel production. Atlanta was a trade city built on The Coca-Cola Company and regional distribution. How each met the challenge when the civil rights revolution came to its 1960s fruition marked their paths forever.

Birmingham still lives with images of fire hoses and attack dogs turning on the demonstrators seeking desegregation. Atlanta was famously the city too busy to hate. Atlanta, of course, has emerged as the region's prime metropolis. Now over four times the population of its one-time rival, Atlanta enjoys the third largest number of Fortune 500 companies among U.S. cities, the world's busiest airport, franchises of every major league sport, and the region s finest cultural institutions. Many have tried to explain the divergence of the two cities.

Birmingham native Paul Hemphill came to Atlanta to pursue a career as a journalist and author. In a remembrance of former Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen who passed away in July, he cited the fact that distant corporations owned the steel mills and other enterprises making Birmingham more or less an orphaned cousin of Pittsburgh.

Atlanta, on the other hand, was locally owned and operated, he wrote in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. Its leaders . . . were not mercenaries . . . . they had been born and raised and educated here. . . .What's good for Atlanta is good for business, and vice versa was their mantra.

Ivan Allen was the son of the founder of Atlanta's leading office products emporium. After his school years, he joined the family business and helped to make it an Atlanta institution. He eventually gravitated to public service, as his father had before him. In the 1961 election, he trounced arch-segregationist Lester Maddox to become Atlanta s mayor.

When he took office in January of 62 he was titular head of a white power structure that included the bosses of the city s 50 largest businesses, most of whom were personal friends who had come up through the ranks of the privileged the same as he. There wasn't a playboy or a careerist or a crackpot in the bunch. In other words, Allen came from a family business background in a community full of leaders with family business backgrounds.

Atlanta had its share of challenges during the changes of the sixties. Nevertheless says Hemphill: Allen and his people were meeting each and every crisis with the dignity and restraint and calm borne out of their sheer love of our city. Allen refused to don a helmet when he stood atop a police car to quell a threatening race riot. He led the business community in an integrated celebration of homegrown Martin Luther King, Jr.'s controversial Nobel Prize and later assured that Atlanta accorded the assassinated civil rights leader proper peace and homage at his funeral. He was the only southern political leader to testify in Congress in favor of John F. Kennedy's landmark Civil Rights Act.

Allen just saw his actions as pragmatic. He simply did what he saw as the right thing to do. Says Hemphill: He didn t have to add that he had been raised properly; that he felt an obligation as a man of privilege, not to squander his good fortune but to use it for the common good.

Ivan Allen, the business founded and named for the mayor s father, continues in its third and fourth generations of family ownership and leadership, though it now focuses on office furnishings rather than office supply. Atlanta s power structure is no longer exclusively white nor predominantly homegrown and it still faces challenges defined by race and otherwise. Perhaps the era characterized by Mayor Allen is as much Gone with the Wind as other aspects of Atlanta's history.

But at a critical point in the mid-twentieth century, family business leaders with family business values put Atlanta on course to be the city it has become today. 

 

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