Column: Genuine Parts coming through a tough time

By Maria Saporta
Friday, April 23, 2010

Tradition, continuity and smooth transitions are qualities that best describe one of Atlanta’s Fortune 500 — Genuine Parts Co. The second page of its annual report has a chart that tracks the company’s sales since its founding in 1928.

Last year, the company’s sales declined 9 percent over 2008, only the second year in the company’s history where sales were less than the year before.

“In the final analysis, we are disappointed in these results of 2009,” CEO Tom Gallagher said at the company’s annual meeting on April 19.
“We are committed to getting back on the plus side in 2010.”

But Gallagher, 62, also was able to give shareholders much rosier first-quarter results — a sales increase of 6 percent and a 12.4 percent increase in its stock price during 2010.

During the question-and-answer period with shareholders, retired CEO Wilton Looney stood up for his annual pep talk.

“It’s a little bit harder this year,” Looney said.
“Believe me, we understand that,” Gallagher chimed in.

“You and your team deserve a lot of credit with the way you brought the company through a mighty tough time,” Looney continued. “It’s the toughest time I’ve seen, and I’ve been around a long time.”

Then Looney called Gallagher “damn lucky” because he was able to lessen the sting of a negative 2009 with a strong first quarter. “I was never able to get that done,” Looney said.

Genuine Parts is unusual in another way — by embracing all its retired directors, a group of more than a dozen. The directors emeriti are invited to the regular board meeting lunches and receive special briefings from Gallagher.

In its 82-year history, Genuine Parts only has had four CEOs, all executives that it has groomed from within the company.

But that could change with the next generation. Paul Donahue, 53, last July was named president of the company’s Automotive Parts Group, a division that represents more than half of Genuine Parts’ sales.

Larry Prince, chairman of the company’s executive committee and its retired CEO, confirmed that Donahue is the odds-on favorite to be Genuine Parts’ next CEO. “Any time any one runs our largest group, they’re in a good position to prove themselves,” Prince said. “So he’s in a wonderful spot.”

Looney, Blank win awards

By the way, Wilton Looney was honored by the Rotary Club of Atlanta on April 12 with its “Service Above Self” award. Looney was honored for decades of community service as well has making a “substantial gift” to Rotary to help the international organization eradicate polio.

Then on April 19, the club honored Atlanta Falcons’ owner Arthur Blank with its “Legends” award.

Blank was recognized for having donated a total of $250 million to various nonprofits. Upon accepting the award, Blank said that when he and Bernie Marcus co-founded The Home Depot Inc. they believed that “businesses can be a powerful force for good.”

Blank then introduced Rotarians to his mother, Molly Blank. “My mother soon will be celebrating her 95th birthday,” he said. “My mother always was involved in the community.” He said his family “continues to live out that legacy.”

Historic fundraiser

The Atlanta History Center will hold its largest annual fundraising event April 24 — the Swan House Ball. It is the 25th year for the gala.

One person who attended the first Swan House Ball was Jim Landon, a partner with the Jones Day law firm. He is the honorary chair of this year’s Swan House Ball, and his firm is the presenting sponsor.

“It’s sobering to think that we were at the first one,” Landon said.

But after all, it’s appropriate that the Swan House Ball will hit this milestone and will raise about $500,000 for the Atlanta History Center. Proceeds will help fund educational programs for more than 60,000 children this year.

“We have one of the most interesting histories among American cities,” Landon said. “We wouldn’t know about it without the Atlanta History Center.”

The ball also has two other key corporate sponsors — The Coca-Cola Co. and Wilmington Trust. Other corporate sponsors include AT&T Inc., Crawford & Co. and InterContinental Hotels Group Plc.

Russells support Hughes Spalding

It was a family affair for the Russell family at the grand opening of the Hughes Spalding Children’s Hospital.

The lobby was dedicated to the memory of Otelia Hackney Russell, the late wife of Herman Russell, founder of the minority-owned construction company H.J. Russell & Co.

The chair of the Hughes Spalding campaign was Lovette Russell, a community leader who is married to Michael Russell, now CEO of the company founded by his father. In all, the initiative to transform Hughes Spalding and have it meet the standards of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta cost $43 million. But there was a gap of $8.1 million, so Lovette Russell was brought on board.

She took her father-in-law to visit Hughes Spalding. At the dedication on April 20, Herman Russell said that he knew there would be no better way to honor his late wife, and so he donated $1 million.

“I knew this would be a perfect fit,” Russell said. “There’s not a better way to honor Othelia because she loved kids and particularly kids that were not as fortunate as us.”

Russell also was honored that one of his closest friends — Jesse Hill Jr. — came to the event. Hill has been ailing and is not often out in public.

“He’s been a friend for almost 50 years,” Herman Russell said. “Jesse, we appreciate you and all you have done in this city. I just want to say to you how grateful I am.”

Russell also thanked his current wife, Sylvia Russell, president of AT&T Georgia. She told her husband that she didn’t want to miss the dedication that honored his first wife by saying: “I want to be here to show my support and appreciation.”

And then Herman Russell thanked his late wife: “Othelia, we really appreciate the mark that you made on this city.”

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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