By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Feb. 1, 2019
Shortly after buying the Atlanta Falcons in early 2002, Arthur Blank was in New York for a new NFL owners orientation when he had breakfast with Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots.
Kraft gave Blank advice he’s never forgotten.
“Everybody is going to tell you that the NFL is different – that you can’t run [a team] the same way you ran Home Depot,” Kraft told Blank. “But I’m going to tell you that if you follow the same attributes and values and culture that you did at Home Depot in the NFL, you’re going to be very successful.”
For Blank, that was not a stretch.
Home Depot’s organizational chart resembles an inverted pyramid. At the highest level are the customers, followed by front-line associates and corporate support. The CEO is at the lowest rung, based on the theory that if a company places customers and associates first, the rest will take care of itself. As Home Depot’s co-founder, Blank had sealed that culture as part of his DNA.
“Right from the get-go, everything was engrained in me – my ‘orange blood philosophy’ if you will,” Blank says. “That’s how I have run the team and made every decision regarding associates, our fans and stakeholders, our sponsors, everybody.”
The formula has worked.
When he bought the team from the family of the late Rankin Smith, the Atlanta Falcons were far from an NFL success story.
“The commissioner at the time, Paul Tagliabue, said to me, ‘You’ve never had back-to-back winning seasons,’” Blank recalls. “I said, ‘That can’t be right.’ So I went back and checked. He was right.”
Tagliabue also half-joked that out of the 31 NFL teams at the time, “the Atlanta Falcons would be ranked 37th based on local revenues. Sure enough, he was right about that, too,” Blank says.
While Blank didn’t take it personally, he was embarrassed for the city. “I knew Atlanta could do better than that,” he says.
The new Falcons ownership team surveyed those who were coming to the games, and those who weren’t. The venue was rarely sold out, less than half of those in attendance were Falcons fans, and a third were supporting the opposing team.
“We had no home field advantage,” Blank explains. When he asked the players how he could help them, they told him to fill the Georgia Dome with fans. So the Falcons sold season tickets for $100 – $10 a game.
“I called Commissioner Tagliabue and told him what I wanted to do. He said I had the authority to do that, but the other owners would not be happy about it,” Blank says. “We sold out the rest of the stadium, about 25,000 seats, inside of two hours. From that point on, other than a couple of games after (quarterback) Michael Vick broke his leg, we have sold out every game.”
Still, Blank soon realized the Falcons would either need to revamp their stadium or build a new one. Protracted negotiations with the City of Atlanta and the State of Georgia eventually yielded the new $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which opened in the fall of 2017. Although the roof took an additional nine months to complete, the stadium has been heralded by fans of the Falcons and the Major League Soccer franchise it houses – Atlanta United Football Club.
Blank marvels at both the crowds and atmosphere he’s seen at the stadium.
“It’s hard to encapsulate that passion, that emotion, that energy,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in December, days before Atlanta United defeated Portland, 2-0, for the MLS Cup in front of 73,019 fans. “I’ve never experienced that in any sport or any venue, any concert or anything, in my entire life. It’s great to be a part of that.”
With the opening of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Blank lowered food and beverage prices – a move that made national news. After the Falcons’ first game, Blank received a “long, hand-written note” from former President Barack Obama, who had watched the game and congratulated the Falcons owner on that decision.
For Blank, however, building a world-class stadium was only half of the equation. The other half was to lift up the Westside, the struggling communities across Northside Drive from the new stadium.
Blank inspired business and civic leaders to return the Westside to where it was 50 or so years ago, a thriving community that included Martin Luther King Jr. and a host of civil rights leaders and African-American scholars.
The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation already has invested more than $40 million in these communities – funding job training programs, housing rehabilitation, education initiatives, community policing, and new parks, as well as health and wellness offerings. At the same time, Blank is committed to the residents of these neighborhoods.
“We want to make sure that the people who live here have the option to stay here,” Blank says. “That’s where the issue of affordable housing, a key issue for the mayor and a key issue for our foundation, comes into play. We need to make sure they are not forced to leave.”
Atlanta’s hosting of the Super Bowl also has been paramount for Blank. The city has not had a Super Bowl since 2000 (Rams-Titans), when it was hit with a freak ice storm during Super Bowl weekend. That appeared to freeze Atlanta’s chances of getting the big game again … until Blank convinced his fellow owners to award the 2019 Super Bowl.
Blank, who is soft spoken and always immaculately dressed, is a man of strong convictions whose leadership has been felt far beyond Home Depot and the Falcons. When he was chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber in 2003, he led the business community’s successful efforts to get the Legislature to change the Georgia State flag, which then included the Confederate battle emblem. He also serves on many boards, including the Carter Center, founded by former President Jimmy Carter.
Growing up in Flushing, N.Y., Blank lost his father when he was only 15. His mother – Molly Blank, who died in 2015 a few months shy of turning 100 – was an inspiration throughout his life.
“It was hard for my brother, myself, and my mother,” Blank says. “Father was an entrepreneur, started his own business, and was successful enough so my mother could take it over without any business background.”
Blank described his life at the time as one of modest means. When he married his first wife, Diana, they bought their first home for $30,500. “I told Diana at the time: ‘Well, I won’t embarrass you. We’ll keep covering the mortgage, but I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to pay off this loan.’”
Eventually the family business was sold to Daylin, the parent company of Handy Dan Home Improvement Centers, where Blank first teamed up with Bernie Marcus. Both were fired from Handy Dan, and that gave them the impetus to launch the Home Depot.
At 76, Blank is beginning to contemplate his legacy.
“My goal is to live as long as I can, live a quality, productive life where my mental health, my physical health, and my spiritual health are intact,” he says. “If I’m doing that, I’ll be productive and I’ll be there for all of the people I love and who love me, starting with my family.”
Blank has six children, three from his first marriage – Kenny Blank, Dena Blank Kimball, and Danielle Blank Thomsen – all now involved with nonprofits, and three from his second marriage – Joshua, Max, and Kylie. It is likely they will end up working for AMB Group’s different entities, which include the Falcons, Atlanta United, PGA TOUR Superstore, and two guest ranches in Montana.
The desire to involve family and community is important to Blank. Fortunately, he says, the NFL has loosened its ownership rules so a principal owner can now own as little as 30 percent of a team. That means owners can sell minority stakes in their teams to build equity for philanthropy and other ventures while keeping the franchise in the family.
“It’s one of the reasons the NFL wants a principal owner – they want a family, somebody to take the significant money stake who understands the city and, usually, lives in the city where the franchise is located,” Blank says. “I view myself as a steward of the fans, as a custodian of the franchise. I view the fans as really being the owners.”
Blank also has signed “the Giving Pledge” – to give away at least 50 percent of his wealth to charitable causes (though he’s stated several times he will give back 95 percent through the Foundation).
“We want to continue to grow our foundation at a significant rate,” Blank says. “My kids have all encouraged me to be aggressive in my philanthropy during my lifetime.”
In 2016, Blank revealed he had prostate cancer, which has since been successfully treated.
“Everything is good,” he says. Still, Blank is keenly aware of death. Two of his closest friends have died in recent years – John Imlay in 2015 and John Williams in 2018. Both were minority owners of the Falcons, and both were instrumental in Blank buying the team.
“It makes you realize that no matter how much success you may have, life does not go on forever, and there are no guarantees,” Blank says. “So, which day was the most important day? I would say today because you’re not guaranteed any tomorrows. I’m much more aware that I’m not living on borrowed time, but living on a more limited amount of time than I was before.
“Every day is a pivotal point in my life.”
This story originally ran in the NFL’s Official Super Bowl LIII Game Magazine. It is available for purchase at stores throughout Atlanta and at superbowlprogram.us.