Column: Donahue may be next in line at Genuine Parts

By Maria Saporta
Friday, July 10, 2009

Since its founding in 1928, Genuine Parts has only had four CEOs. No other major public company in metro Atlanta can make such a claim.

We now have a good clue of who could be the fifth CEO of the company.

On July 6, the company announced that it was naming Paul Donahue as president of its U.S. Automotive Parts Unit. That unit generates 46 percent of the company’s revenue, and is Genuine Parts’ largest division.

Although it’s premature to name Donahue as the future CEO of Genuine Parts, it’s clear that he is a top contender for the job.

Genuine Parts — which sells auto parts, office products, industrial parts and electrical products — is as methodical as any company in town. Succession is well-planned and orchestrated. This is not a company of surprises. It’s a company of continuity.

“It’s just a great Atlanta company that has increased its dividend every year,” said Jimmy Williams, retired CEO of SunTrust Banks Inc., who is a director emeritus of the Genuine Parts board.

When asked about Donahue’s promotion from executive vice president to running the U.S. automotive parts business, Williams said: “That’s one of the top jobs out there. I feel this is another solid move in a positive direction.”

Williams also said the company does “a wonderful job” when it comes to succession.

No one knows that story better than Wilton Looney, who served as CEO of Genuine Parts from 1961 to 1990. Looney first started working at the company in 1938, and he served as its president for about six years under the guidance of founder Carlyle Fraser, who was CEO from 1928 to 1961.

“When he died, I realized it was pretty lonesome at the top,” Looney recalled. He brought in Bill Hatcher and Earl Dolive to be part of his management team, and the three soon recognized an up-and-comer in their ranks — Larry Prince. Prince served as the company’s CEO from 1990 to 2004.

Today, Tom Gallagher, 61, holds that position. Again, Gallagher was no novice in the job. He had served as the company’s president for most of Prince’s tenure as CEO.

Donahue, 52, however, does not totally fit the mold of a traditional Genuine Parts CEO because he has not spent most of the career with the company. He joined Genuine Parts in 2003 after serving as president of one of the divisions of Newell Rubbermaid Inc.

“You could say Donahue didn’t grow up within the company, but he proved himself very quickly,” Looney said.

Looney called Donahue the day of the announcement and told him he was envious.

“The job you’re going into is the most interesting job and you can do so much good for the company,” Looney told him.

The U.S. Automotive Parts Group oversees a network of 58 distribution centers and 1,100 company-owned stores and 4,800 independently owned NAPA Auto Parts stores.

If Donahue does well in his new job, Looney said he would have to be on the short list of Genuine Parts executives capable of running the company.

Then Looney, who turned 90 this year, bemoaned how American business has changed.

“The thing that worries me today is that top executives don’t go to a company to build the company; they go there to see what they can do for themselves,” Looney said. “We always felt that if we can build a company, then that will take care of the executives.”

Celebrating Stallard

Atlanta’s United Way put on a “hometown celebration” to honor Ann Stallard on Wednesday evening July 8 at a reception at UPS.

The occasion — her recent election as chairman of the board of United Way of America.

Stallard, CEO of Graphic Communications Corp. in Lawrenceville, has been a longtime civic player in Atlanta and the country. She has been instrumental in a national United Way effort to attract more women donors.

Her co-conspirator and mentor in that effort was Dr. Johnnetta Cole, the former president of Spelman College. Cole also served as board chair of United Way of America.
Beltline leader

A search is under way for the next president and CEO of Atlanta BeltLine Inc.

Current ABI President Terri Montague announced in May that she would be stepping down on Sept. 1, although she will serve as a consultant through the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the firm of BoardWalk Consulting has been hired to help in the search process for the next president.

“This search has created as much interest in the market as any search we have done lately,” said Sam Pettway, founder of BoardWalk Consulting. “The Beltline is very much on top of mind with lots of folks.”

Pettway said the goal is to have identified the next president sometime in September.

The timing is tricky. Whoever is president of Atlanta BeltLine Inc., the public entity in charge of developing the 22-mile circular corridor, has to work closely with the city.

But city elections will be held in November, and it won’t be known who will be Atlanta’s next mayor or city council president until after Nov. 3 or after the run-off elections three weeks later.

The members of the search committee are: longtime civic leader Clara Axam, who is chairing the committee; Cal Darden, a UPS executive who chairs Atlanta BeltLine Inc.; John Somerhalder, CEO of AGL Enterprises who chairs the private-sector group — BeltLine Partnership; Carl Patton, former president of Georgia State University; and Joe Brown, director of equity for Ceterline Capital, who formerly was with Bank of America.

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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