J. Mack Robinson – quiet business leader, philanthropist – passes away
By Maria Saporta
An updated update: Due to weather concerns, the memorial service now is scheduled for Friday, Feb. 14 at 2 p.m. at Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church. The family will be receiving guests immediately following the service in the Robinson Atrium at the High Museum of Art. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to either Emory University’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center or the High Museum of Art.
Legendary Atlanta businessman J. Mack Robinson passed away Saturday night after a long illness.
Robinson, 90, enjoyed one of the most colorful professional lives of any businessman in Atlanta — experiencing the worlds of banking, insurance, fashion design, media, horse racing and numerous other business sectors.
Throughout his life, Robinson was probably best known for being a polite, soft-spoken Southern gentleman who rarely had an unkind word for anyone.
In 1998, Georgia State University named its College of Business Administration the J. Mack Robinson College of Robinson thanks to a $10 million endowment that he made to the school. As the ultimate entrepreneur and business leader, it was a fitting way for Robinson’s legacy to permanently recognized.
Robinson is said to have first gone into business when he was 10 years old working as a “helper” at the Atlanta Journal. It took him only five years to work himself up to circulation district manager in the newspaper’s downtown office.
He graduated from Boys High School (now Grady High School) and served in the U.S. Army during World War II from 1941 to 1945. When he returned from the war, he went back to work at the Atlanta Journal. It was there where he started selling used cars in the classified section, eventually opening up two used-car lots in the city.
Soon Robinson left the newspaper so he could devote his time to the used car business opening up lots in several markets across the state. But Robinson soon realized that he could leverage his business by financing the sale of automobiles. He started his own firm — Dixie Finance Co. He then sold his car business and started the Gulf Finance Co. He quickly expanded his business operations throughout the South.
Around the same time, Robinson saw there also was opportunity in the insurance business, and he started Delta Life Insurance and acquired other insurance companies.
In the mid-1960s, Robinson began buying local banks in small towns around Atlanta — eventually owning 22 banks in the region with branches in more than 50 cities.
Then in 1972, he sold more than 100 of his finance offices to First National Bank of Atlanta, later acquired by Wachovia Bank. He became a director of the bank and its largest individual shareholder.
In the early 1960s, Robinson helped a struggling fashion designer start his own fashion house. Robinson wrote personal checks to Yves Saint Laurent to make sure he could meet payroll and keep the fashion house afloat. He would travel to France several times a year, and Saint Laurent ended up designing his daughter’s wedding dress. Then in 1966, Robinson sold his share of the fashion house for $1 million.
One of the funnier stories of his venture in the fashion business was when Saint Laurent wanted to get into the perfume business. He wanted to call the new scent “Opium.”
Robinson refused to let him name a perfume after a narcotic. Then, the moment Robinson sold his investment, Saint Laurent unveiled Opium, which became one of the top-selling perfumes in the world.
Robinson also developed an interest in horse racing, buying and operating a horse farm in Thomasville with about 90 horses and a 5/8 mile race track.
With his wife, Nita, and their two daughters, Jill and Robin, the Robinsons became well-known philanthropists in the community.
In 1994, the Georgia Chapter of the National Society of Fundraising Executives named the Robinsons as Philanthropists of the Year. The Robinsons also have made major donations to the Westminster Schools, Oglethorpe University; and J. Mack Robinson served as a director of the Woodruff Arts Center and as a life member of the High Museum of Art’s board of directors.
In September 2002, Robinson entered the television and newspaper business when he bought Gray Television, which owned a host of television stations and a five newspapers across the South.
“He was the finest man I’ve ever known,” said Robert Prather, retired CEO of Bull Run Corp. and an executive of Gray Communications, on Saturday. “I was lucky to have worked with J. Mack for 18 years. He was a great man.”
In addition to all his business and philanthropic endeavors, Robinson also had been quite active in politics — supporting the Democratic campaigns of Gov. Zell Miller, President Jimmy Carter, U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn and President Bill Clinton. Later Robinson told me that he had become a Republican, but he also had become less active in political circles.
The last time I interviewed J. Mack Robinson was in February 2011 when Georgia State University acquired a downtown block of property from one of his close associates — Peter Blum — a site where the business school one day would be relocated.
“It’s very humbling for Mack to have his name on one of the most important buildings downtown,” his wife, Nita, said during the two-hour interview at their home. “I think Mack is prouder of [his involvement with the GSU business school] than anything he’s ever done.”
“It’s a wonderful school,” her husband chimed in.
The purchase of that block was quite sentimental for Robinson because he was watching his life come full circle from his earliest days in business.
“My office used to be in the Candler building,” Robinson said, referring to the nearby historic building. “I would go to work on Saturdays and Sundays, and I would look out my window from the fourth floor and see that property, looking straight at the small hotels.”
As the years have gone by, Robinson said, he has continued to see the potential in that block.
“I don’t think you could have a better location than near the Candler building,” Robinson said during the interview for the Atlanta Business Chronicle “I thought I would love it to become part of Georgia State.”
As far as I know, that was the last interview that Robinson ever gave. It was an honor to know him.
Note the readers: the family is still working on funeral arrangements. We will update this post with information on the services as soon as we get them.