by Tony Wilbert and Mark Braykovich
Carl Sanders being sworn in as governor. Photo: AP.
The passing of two Atlanta icons – former Governor Carl Sanders and real estate magnate Herman Russell – rekindles several fond memories for Tony Wilbert, who wrote about Russell during the 1990s and 2000s, and Mark Braykovich, who worked for Gov. Sanders at the law firm Troutman Sanders until 2013.
Most people remember Sanders as the progressive Democrat who pushed to desegregate schools and the state capitol, but Mark also recalls him as the brilliant legal strategist who served as counsel to many of the deans of Atlanta business, such as Tom Cousins.
At Troutman Sanders, legions of much-younger lawyers regularly marched up to his 52nd floor office – where Sanders held court from his old governor’s chair – to solicit his advice or approval. Several of them would proudly tell you “I’m a Sanders guy,” meaning they had been handpicked by him to work at the firm he founded after losing his second gubernatorial bid to Jimmy Carter in the early 1970s.
Sanders always took time to chat. Just wander into his office and he would regale you with stories about politics past and present, his meeting with JFK, and his wife Betty’s artwork that hung in his office.
Even in his later years, Sanders’ mind remained sharp and he would rifle out tough questions. He also was smart enough to know when he needed to pass the reins at Troutman Sanders, choosing a young partner, Bob Webb, to succeed him. The move paid huge dividends as Webb orchestrated mergers, geographic expansion and unprecedented growth for Troutman Sanders.
Russell was similarly brilliant and successful, says Tony. The construction firm he founded, H.J. Russell & Co., played a role in building numerous Atlanta landmarks. Look out across the Atlanta skyline, notes Tony, and you’ll see them: Centennial Olympic Park, the Georgia Dome, the Atlanta Federal Center, Georgia-Pacific Plaza, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Herman Russell in front of one of his many Atlanta projects. Photo: Lanna Swindler.
He was a trailblazer known for knocking down racial barriers and making unconventional business decisions. The one Tony remembers most was Russell’s 1996 decision to name NOT one of his children to succeed him at H.J. Russell, but an outsider, R.K. Sehgal.
Later, however, he returned leadership of the company to his family, selecting son Michael to be the CEO and his other son, Jerome, to be the company’s president.
During his unparalleled career, Russell won every major civic and commercial real estate award and recognition in Atlanta. In 2004, ULI Atlanta bestowed upon Russell its prestigious Frank Carter Community Achievement Award named for the founder of Carter.
Tony also recalls Russell’s amazing work ethic. He was known for working an average of 14 hours a day for 40 years. In fact, when he stepped aside as CEO in 1996, he told (then reporter) Tony that he looked forward to working “part time.”
“Eight hours [a day] is part time for me,” Russell said.