A Good Name… J. Mack Robinson

On September 9, 1998, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia officially approved the renaming of Georgia State University’s College of Business Administration as the J. Mack Robinson College of Business. The renaming and $10 million endowment that Mr. Robinson gave to the college signify a new chapter in Georgia State’s history.

I believe in this city and in this College’s potential to be the finest business school in the nation.

—J. Mack Robinson

J. Mack Robinson was known as an entrepreneur, talented businessman, philanthropist, breeder of thoroughbred racehorses, and a loving husband and father. But most of all, Mr. Robinson was known as one of Atlanta’s and America’s finest citizens and (during his lifetime) a living example of the passage from Proverbs that states, “a good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.” In business and social circles, his name was said with respect, warmth and a little bit of awe. Mr. Robinson was one of those rare people who had the Midas touch in business and the courtly manner that characterizes a true Southern gentleman.

With Mr. Robinson’s gentle manner and sincere smile, it was easy to see why his peers referred to Mack Robinson as one of the world’s nicest guys. As he walked around his office, pointing out a picture of his grandchildren or displaying the trophy his daughter’s horse, Cherokee Run, won at the Breeder’s Cup, he seemed almost oblivious to his business successes. His office building, headquarters for the Atlantic American Corporation of which he was chairman, was a five-story building located outside the hustle and bustle of downtown Atlanta. But, like the man himself, the building’s modesty did not diminish the success and impressiveness contained within.

Early Lessons

An Atlanta native, Mr. Robinson said he always wanted to be in business for himself. He began his career at age 10 as a “helper” at The Atlanta Journal. By 12, he was working seven days a week as a newspaper carrier for the Journal, and at 15 he was in the main office and also a circulation district manager. These newspaper positions were the only jobs in which he was employed full-time by someone other than himself, and they taught him early lessons about the benefits of hard work.

“As a carrier, I collected for my route and paid weekly for my papers, and the difference was my profit. The more I worked, the more I made. I saved most of my profits and purchased my first automobile at age 15. It was a 1931 Model A Ford, just like new,” he said with a proud smile.

Upon graduation from Boys High School (now Grady High School), Mr. Robinson planned to attend business school at Emory University. In order to work ahead, he enrolled in a class at the Evening School of Commerce, which would become Georgia State University. His plans to attend Emory were cut short by his enlisting in the U.S. Army at the age of 19 during World War II. The Army Signal Corps sent him to Georgia Tech for one year and Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University) for one year. After a three-year tour of duty in the Arlington/Washington, D.C. area, he returned to Atlanta to a job at the Journal and a hobby that would change his life—selling used cars.

An Entrepreneurial Eye

“I was working at the Journal, and they allowed me to start my own business. I decided to sell used cars because it looked so easy; and, I knew I could get into the business, since cars were in such high demand after World War II ended,” Mr. Robinson explained.

Then President Carl Patton, J. Mack Robinson and then Dean Sidney Harris at the naming announcement press conference.

Then President Carl Patton, J. Mack Robinson and then Dean Sidney Harris at the naming announcement press conference.

He opened Baker Street Motors and Robinson Motors within blocks of each other, and both proved very profitable. He resigned from the newspaper and developed several more lots in Atlanta, as well as in Macon, Augusta and Columbus. Although this was his first taste of entrepreneurial success, the car lots also provided one of his hardest lessons. “There was an early freeze over the Thanksgiving holiday one year and it caught all of my Atlanta lots full of cars without any antifreeze. I had about 55 cars with cracks in the engine,” Mr. Robinson remembered. “And I was so discouraged that I said I would never sell another car.”

From that early experience, Mr. Robinson learned about being prepared and gained the humility that comes from realizing that you cannot prepare for everything. However, early freeze or not, Mr. Robinson’s life was about to take another turn, and this one would prove even more profitable and successful.

Like many of Mack Robinson’s business ventures, his move to the finance industry came from an issue of practicality. He had been financing cars with a local bank and a large automobile finance company in Chicago, requiring his personal guarantee on every contract on a car more than three years old. In May 1948, he decided to form his own company—Dixie Finance Company—and later added Gulf Finance Company.

“I immediately knew that I liked the finance business much better than the auto business, so I sold my car lots and expanded my finance operations over a period of 20 years into 107 cities in the South, and that proved very successful,” Mr. Robinson said of his start as a credit pioneer.

And just as Mr. Robinson’s car business led him to finance, this new venture opened yet another door for him. He was generating so much auto and credit life insurance that he decided to form his own insurance company, Delta Life Insurance Company. A few years later, he added Delta Fire & Casualty Insurance Company. The Robinson family still retains complete ownership of both companies. In addition, this was before computers and snap-out forms, so Mr. Robinson formed Delta Printing Company to do all of his printing.

Part of Fashion History

You’ve got to work hard, study hard, and not give up. You have to truly enjoy your work to succeed.

—J. Mack Robinson

In the early 1960s, Mack Robinson owned an insurance company in Switzerland. The managing director of the company was looking for opportunities to invest its profits. One day, Mr. Robinson received a call saying that Yves Saint Laurent was looking for a financial backer. Saint Laurent had been designing for the House of Dior but wanted to start his own house of haute couture. Mr. Robinson met with Mr. Saint Laurent and many people in the fashion industry and decided to make the investment and finance him.

As he did not feel it was proper for an insurance company to make such a risky investment, Mr. Robinson made the investment personally. In addition, he worried about how the public would accept a Paris fashion house that was owned by an American, so for two years, only a handful of people knew of the investment. As Mr. Robinson’s involvement in the business activities of the fashion house increased, especially when he was signing checks, the media eventually found out. With his other businesses and his family still in Atlanta, Mr. Robinson became an international commuter.

“For about four years, I was in Paris at least every 90 days, and all the flights were from New York City,” he remembered. By 1966, the house of Yves Saint Laurent had grown too large to commute from Atlanta. In one of his hardest business decisions, Mr. Robinson sold his partnership for $1 million because he did not want to move his family to Paris. He remained proud of his early investment in a young Parisian designer and maintained a friendship with the now world-famous Saint Laurent. Mr. Robinson and his wife, Nita, were among the first dinner guests at Saint Laurent’s famous apartment on the Left Bank, and each year they received a Christmas card painted by the designer himself.

“Yves is truly a genius and one of the greatest designers in the world, and I regretted selling my partnership,” said Mr. Robinson. “But I needed to be here more than there, and it would have required too much time away from my family.”

The Move to Banking

With the sale of his Yves Saint Laurent partnership, Mr. Robinson purchased the only banks in Roswell and Alpharetta, Georgia. He found that he liked banking even more than his previous endeavors in the finance business. He eventually procured several state charters to open his own bank. From those initial banks, he opened or purchased a total of 22 community banks with branches in 50 other cities, thus becoming one of Georgia’s banking leaders.

“I preferred to be in areas where there were fewer than 75,000 people because I was usually the largest finance company in town. It was much cheaper to operate in the smaller towns, and there was less competition,” he explained. In 1972, he sold 107 finance offices to First National Bank of Atlanta (later known as First Atlanta) and became a director at the bank. This sale made him the bank’s largest individual shareholder—a distinction he continued to hold after First Atlanta merged with Wachovia Bank.

Mr. Robinson attributed much of his success to employing honest and hard-working people. He was proud of the fact that he had quite a number of employees who stayed with him for more than 30 years. However, he did more than offer words of praise for hard work and loyalty. In a true demonstration of his character, Mr. Robinson helped approximately 20 long-time employees enter the finance business themselves during a time span of 25 years.

“lt gave me great satisfaction to put some of my long-time employees in business, and most of them have done extremely well,” said Mr. Robinson with pride.

Personal Inspirations and Accomplishments

Two men heavily influenced the way that Mack Robinson lives his life—his father and Robert W. Woodruff. Unlike his son who experienced a number of business scenarios, Mr. Robinson’s father worked one job his entire life. However, he encouraged his son in his businesses and taught him to work hard and save his money. Those lessons remain a part of Mack Robinson today.

J. Mack Robinson

Mr. Robinson said he was heavily influenced by Woodruff and his philanthropic activities. Active in supporting many causes, Woodruff and his wife were named Philanthropists of the Year in 1994 by the Georgia chapter of the National Society of Fundraising Executives. He has served as director of the Atlanta Arts Alliance (now known as the Woodruff Arts Center), is director emeritus at Westminster Schools and Wachovia Corporation, and serves as a life member on the board of directors of the High Museum of Art.

“I used to go on two- or three-day hunting trips, and I remember almost everything he said in our conversations,” Mr. Robinson said of Robert Woodruff. “I watched what he did with his money, and his great generosity rubbed off on me. There will never be anyone else who could do what he did.”

Mr. Robinson learned one of his most important business lessons first-hand. Looking back on his life, Mr. Robinson said it was a mistake to try to own 100 percent of any business. He explained that it is hard to grow big when so much capital is tied up. However, he also admitted that anything less than complete ownership leads to concern over losing control of the company. His proudest business accomplishment was the banking business he built and the reputation he acquired in the business. Mack Robinson had strong, old-fashioned values, especially when it came to his name and the trust associated with it.

“I don’t believe in a company going bankrupt,” he explained. “I would sell all of my personal belongings before I would let it go bankrupt because it would ruin my reputation. I value the credit that my name holds more than anything.”

A Horse is a Horse

Mack Robinson loved thoroughbred horses since he was in his teens and visited the Florida tracks at every opportunity he had with the dream of someday owning his own horse. Toward the end of his life he owned approximately 90 horses and his own horse farm in Thomasville, Georgia, complete with a 5/8 mile racetrack. He was a life member of the Jockey Club, one of the greatest honors that can be given within equestrian circles.

“We breed thoroughbreds, and I love seeing the horses I have bred to great stallions succeed at the racetracks around the country.” He added, “And I have not missed a Kentucky Derby in 39 years.”

When it came to his horses, Mr. Robinson did a lot of the research and made all the important decisions himself. He spent time every morning studying race results and making phone calls to trainers. The hard part about horses, he said, is that you never really know how you did until you sell out. However, his daughter Jill has what he called “beginner’s luck that never ran out.”

Jill owns Cherokee Run, who won the Breeder’s Cup Sprint Award in 1994 and the Eclipse Award the following year. Mack Robinson was proud that Jill asked him to receive the trophy in the winner’s circle, and it sat atop a table in his office. Family was central to all of Mack Robinson’s activities and successes. His other daughter Robin Howell and her husband Hilton took an active role in his business ventures.

The Future of Business in the South

Mr. Robinson saw great things in the future of both Atlanta and Georgia State. He described Atlanta as having a great business climate full of Southern hospitality and friendliness. “I think Atlanta is the New York of the South, except that it can grow in every direction. New York can’t grow anymore, and I truly believe Atlanta will be just as important as New York.”

As for Georgia State, Mr. Robinson saw it grow from humble roots to a nationally respected institution. He saw many people, including some of his employees, benefit from the business program, and he felt that there were even greater things in the college’s future.

“I hope to see my gift used to keep attracting top faculty, because if you’re going to be at the top of the competition, you have to attract the top people,” said Mr. Robinson. “I believe in this city and this college’s potential to be the finest business school in the nation.”

by Jennifer Brock