Egbert Perry: ‘Nobody else can tell you if you’re successful’

Atlanta developer driven to tackle projects with impact.

Perry’s remarks were edited for length and clarity.

INSPIRING PERSPECTIVES

Each Sunday, the AJC brings you insights from metro Atlanta’s leaders and entrepreneurs. Henry Unger’s “5 Questions for the Boss” reveals the lessons learned by CEOs of the area’s major companies and organizations. The column alternates with Matt Kempner’s “Secrets of Success,” which shares the vision and realities of entrepreneurs who started their dreams from scratch.

Find previous columns from Unger and Kempner at our premium website for subscribers at www.myajc.com/business.

For six years, the old GM Doraville site at Spaghetti Junction sat dormant, bypassed by millions of cars and several developers who kicked the tires of the shuttered plant before deciding to plunk their money elsewhere.

Now, excavators are making way for a huge mixed-use project led by developer Egbert Perry, the same man who knocked down Atlanta housing projects before and after the 1996 Olympics to build mixed-income communities.

Perry, a 59-year-old entrepreneur from the Caribbean island of Antigua, is nothing if not determined. His parents, along with the late Herman Russell and several eye-opening experiences, helped stimulate his innate drive. Perry, co-founder and CEO of the Integral Group development firm in Atlanta, discusses how he got to where he is.

Q: What was it like growing up in Antigua?

A: I think of the Antigua I grew up in as a little heaven on earth.

It was a close-knit society. There were 60,000 people on the island. You could fly everyone up here, fit them in the Georgia Dome and still have 10,000 empty seats.

We didn’t have means, but we didn’t know we didn’t have means. The income disparity was not great.

Q: What did your parents do?

A: My parents only had fourth or fifth grade educations. My mother was a homemaker. My father was an entrepreneur.

As the youngest of 13 children, my father had to leave school early in life to work to help support his family. He had a retail shop where he sold cans of evaporated milk, fish, rice and other things.

Q: What did you learn about business from him?

A: He always was trying to capture the market on some sort of product that would give him a leg up on the island. At one point, he sold most of the bubble gum. Another time, it was comic books.

He then landed on poultry. His strategy was to import day-old chickens from a hatchery on a nearby island and then sell them to farmers for $1 each. He then imported the feed and sold that to them. Then he would buy back the eggs or meat from the farmers and sell that in his store.

He was a wholesaler and retailer. He was vertically integrated.

Q: What was your childhood like?

A: I was one of 11 kids. Three of us boys slept on the same bed. I would get kicked every night because I slept in the middle with my shoulders at my older brothers' feet.

We always had the meals and the basics we needed. We never realized we were poor.

We lived in a very, very disciplined household with high expectations.

Q: How did you get the chance to go to a boarding school in the Bronx, N.Y., for your junior and senior years of high school?

A: A well-off New York businessman who had a home on the island put up a scholarship to a private school in the (upscale) Riverdale area of the Bronx.

I was always a good student and won the scholarship, but I didn’t have a good experience.

I was not prepared for the racial dynamics in this country in 1970. Antigua was 90-plus percent black. My family didn’t have television until I was 12, and most families were like us.

Bonus questions

Q: What happened?

A: I stepped into this buzz saw unprepared and started to pick up racial slurs. I started boiling up.

One day, a student said a particularly offensive racial slur to me. I beat the crap out of him right at the bus stop.

I hated being at Riverdale. I was clearly a misfit.

Q: What did you learn?

A: There was a positive side. I got to understand the world I was in while being in a somewhat sheltered environment.

One of my biggest regrets, as a result of my early racial experiences, is that I didn’t reach out to thank the gentleman who put up the scholarship for me. He was white.

I did search him out many years later, but he never responded to my letter. I deserved that.

Q: You managed to get a good high school education and then attended the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school where you earned three degrees — a bachelor’s and master’s in engineering and an MBA from the Wharton School there. But your mother was very upset with you. Why?

A: I was in the engineering school to get a Ph.D., which was what my mother expected me to do, when I took financing and accounting courses at Wharton. I fell in love with them and switched to the business school.

My parents expected their kids to internalize their expectations. When I told my mother I was not getting a Ph.D., she hung up the phone and never forgave me. She would not speak to me.

Years later, when she was dying of cancer, we finally spoke.

Q: How did your experiences at Penn affect your racial outlook?

A: I had three or four excellent professors and advisers in the engineering school there. I was treated like a human being and that helped me overcome my bitterness.

But I was no longer naive because of my Riverdale experiences, as well as other experiences I had in Philadelphia.

I had accepted that the world was messed up and there was a way to navigate through it. You build up your defense mechanisms.

Q: How did you get a job with Herman Russell, who was in the process of building a large construction firm in Atlanta?

A: When I was at Penn, I tutored calculus for extra money. Along the way, I tutored Herman Russell's daughter, Donata. She told her father to interview and hire me, and he eventually did.

After about four months there as his assistant, he told me to develop a business plan for growth. Then, at age 25, he made me president.

I asked him for a job description and he said, “OK, here’s your job description: You’re the president. Run the damn company and don’t lose any of my money or it’s your ass.”

Q: What was it like working for him for 13 years?

A: HJ was quite a bit like my father. He was a hard worker, a plain and simple guy. He was not ostentatious. He was really cheap.

I owe everything to him. He gave me a chance that I would never have gotten anywhere else. Period. End of story.

Because of that, I would never consider losing a penny of his money. If I lost some, I was going to make it back many times over.

Q: How did you help Russell build the company, which went from about $10 million in annual revenue and 50 employees to one of the nation’s largest African American-owned firms with about $200 million and 700 employees when you left in 1993?

A: You'd be amazed at what you can do by working your butt off.

We recruited some very high-quality people from contractors around town. I identified six individuals who would run different parts of the organization. They then helped to train up the next level.

Q: What key mistake did you make?

A: It involved personnel decisions. I had several situations where I did not act as quickly as I should have because of personal reasons.

You can wish all day long that certain people you like will do well.

But at the end of the day, you have to be sober about evaluating them and taking them out of their misery and taking yourself out of your misery, if that’s what is called for.

Q: Why did you leave to start your own firm, Integral Group, in 1993?

A: Russell was heavily branded in the commercial construction arena, often as the minority, joint venture partner on very large projects, such as office buildings.

I wanted to focus on urban development. I was going to figure out a way that made a difference in people’s lives, especially the lives of people who look like me and have limited means.

Q: What did you do?

A: We demolished housing projects in Atlanta, where young kids were sentenced to poverty, and built mixed-income communities. The people there wanted to get out of hell.

The first large project involved demolishing Techwood Homes before and after the Olympics and replacing it with Centennial Place. It had 738 mixed-income apartments (60 percent for low-income households and 40 percent paying market rates), a reconstituted elementary school, an early childhood development center and a YMCA.

Q: You then replaced other Atlanta housing projects with mixed-income units, while also building apartments in other cities. What was your business model?

A: I believe in diversification. If one business goes south, you need others to perform.

We created a property management and construction operation as a complement to developing mixed-income housing. We develop, we build, we own, we manage.

We try to do well while doing good. Doing good is not a business. Some of our businesses are designed strictly to respond to pure capitalism and some are designed to do something impactful in the community.

Q: That brings us to the old GM Doraville site, which involves a different type of revitalization. What are you trying to do?

A: Here we're taking a site that had an industrial use for decades and is important to the region because of its location at I-85 and I-285, and help drive a rebirth that stimulates economic development.

It’s probably a 10-year project. It will have a few thousand residences — apartments, condos and townhomes — as well as Class A office buildings, retail and small businesses.

Forty percent of the 165 acres will be common areas, including parks, trails and green space. There will be a quality of life infrastructure that will impact the surrounding Doraville area.

Q: What’s your most important career advice?

A: Nobody else can tell you if you're successful.

I had certain things I had hoped to accomplish to create impact in people’s lives. I am so far from ever having achieved that, so I don’t get caught up when somebody says I’m successful.

I am driven because I have a long way to go and a short amount of time to get it done.

Set your life to a passion. Then when you go through the ups and downs, you’ll have something that’s pulling you through.

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