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ATL Business Chronicle

Column: Cousins CEO Larry Gellerstedt talks about firm’s future strategies

By Maria Saporta
Friday, May 7, 2010

In his first annual meeting as CEO of Cousins Properties Inc., Larry Gellerstedt III shared his lifelong relationship with the company and its founder — Thomas G. Cousins.

Gellerstedt said that growing up, his family and the Cousins family were close. His father ran Beers Construction and never approached Cousins for business.

But when Gellerstedt became CEO of Beers, he decided to call on Tom Cousins and ask him to consider Beers to construct future projects.

“Mr. Cousins not only readily agreed to consider Beers for upcoming developments, he also said, ‘You know I was always confused why your father, who was such a dear friend of mine, never once asked for my business,’ ” Gellerstedt recalled. “From that point we — Beers — were fortunate to build several landmark projects for Cousins, including the Bank of America Tower and One Ninety One Peachtree.”

Gellerstedt’s comments highlighted the intricate web of Atlanta relationships that have put him fully in charge as the CEO of Cousins since last July, when he succeeded Tom Bell.

Cousins Chairman Taylor Glover expressed full confidence in Gellerstedt, 54. “Larry has a well-deserved reputation as one of the Southeast’s strongest business leaders,” Glover said. “His leadership, energy and focus have already made a significant impact on the direction of Cousins Properties. The board is thrilled to have such an exceptional person carrying the torch.”

During his comments, Gellerstedt said he had four priorities when he became CEO last summer: focus on core operations that drive revenue and profitability (leasing vacant space and generating fees and commissions); strengthening the company’s balance sheet; monetize core assets prudently; and invest capital opportunistically and strategically.

Gellerstedt said those opportunities will be accelerating in the next couple of years with $1.3 trillion in commercial real estate loans coming due between now and 2013.

“Asset values have declined 30 to 40 percent in value, so it’s safe to assume that a considerable portion of these loans are underwater,” Gellerstedt said. “For an opportunistic and well-capitalized company, that is an opportunity.”

Knox retires from Cousins

At the 2010 annual meeting, Cousins Properties said good-bye (with a standing ovation) to its longest-serving director — Boone Knox, who was retiring after 41 years on the board.

Founder Tom Cousins is no longer on the board but continues to be vested — owning more than 8 percent of the company. He and his wife, Ann, attended the annual meeting sitting in the row behind the directors and officers.

Cousins Properties also added Tom Charlesworth to its board in December. But Charlesworth is no stranger to the company. He held executive positions at Cousins from 1992 to 2006.

Aaron’s aims for Fortune 500

Few companies in the country can outmatch Aaron’s Inc.

It’s growth has become so commonplace that at its annual shareholders meeting on May 4, Chief Financial Officer Gil Danielson apologized for showing slides that looked just like the slides that he had shown for the past 15 years of increased sales and earnings.

Danielson then illustrated the growth in this way.

“Back in 2009, we were on the cusp of being one of the Fortune 1000 companies,” he said. “Now we are at 915. Being on the Fortune 500 is our next goal.”

Aaron’s founder Charlie Loudermilk, who owns more than 60 percent of the company’s class A shares, said the company currently has about 1,700 stores in the United States and thinks it could be as many as 3,000 stores.

“We are thinking of expanding in Canada big time,” Loudermilk said. “We are looking at other countries. I don’t like the idea of socialistic companies.”

35-year relationship

Before Aaron’s Inc.’s annual meeting, SunTrust Banks Inc. President Bill Rogers presented Charlie Loudermilk with a Tiffany commemorative plate to mark the 35-year relationship between the company and the bank. Rogers also thanked Loudermilk for all his contributions in the community and to free enterprise.

But Loudermilk couldn’t leave well enough alone. “I was thrown out of Trust Company Bank many years ago,” he said. “I was kiting checks. I had three accounts.” So when he went to do a transaction at a branch on West Peachtree, the bank manager threw him out.

It was thanks to his friends and business colleagues from Genuine Parts Co. — Wilton Looney and Earl Dolive — who helped repair that relationship.

Aaron’s board moves

Fittingly, Earl Dolive, 91, who has served on Aaron’s board since 1977, is going to be named director emeritus for all the effort he put into this company, Loudermilk said at Aaron’s annual meeting.

“I wish Earl were here,” Loudermilk said of the ailing director.

That will free up a seat for the all-male board of directors.

And Loudermilk said company leaders currently are considering several women for that slot. “There will be a woman director by this time next year,” Loudermilk said.

Woodruff e-commerce

The Woodruff Arts Center is going even more high-tech.

Woodruff patrons will be able to “one-stop” shop across the center’s divisions through a new e-commerce platform.

The platform was designed by Three Squared and its technical division, Bluetube Interactive.

This will permit the center to cross- promote its offerings from its different divisions — the Alliance Theatre, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the High Museum of Art and Young Audiences.

The goal is to familiarize the center’s patrons with offerings in the other divisions and help boost sales for all of them.

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.


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