Cobb couple with a lean-to-luxury life has given away millions

Grateful givers say they have never forgotten their tough times
Deborah and Eric Wilhelm stand with their horse, Fantinel, at their Del Cavallo Farm in Marietta. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Deborah and Eric Wilhelm stand with their horse, Fantinel, at their Del Cavallo Farm in Marietta. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Eric Wilhelm found success running two supply chain companies and shared the wealth with his employees — collectively giving 175 of them a whopping $23 million.

“When we got this big windfall of tens of millions of dollars, there was just no way we could walk away and ignore the fact that our employees worked as hard as we did to build it,” the longtime Marietta entrepreneur said. “I don’t think I could have slept if we didn’t.”

Wilhelm, 63, and his wife Deborah, 60, have twice put some of the millions he’s made into bonuses for employees, including Michelle Moore. She said the bonus she received last year was “very generous,” “life-changing,” and timely, with a daughter starting Baylor University and another child in junior college.

“I cannot say enough great things about Eric and the family,” said Moore, director of business processes at Coregistics, a company Wilhelm started in 2011.

The Wilhelms, who are millionaires multiple times over, have raised or donated an estimated $2 million to charitable causes over the last 20 years. They subscribe to the biblical teaching, “To whom much is given, much is required.” They also say that, despite having three homes and an affluent lifestyle, they have never forgotten their own hard times.

Eric and Deborah Wilhelm stand outside their Del Cavallo Farm in Marietta. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Phil Skinner

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Credit: Phil Skinner

The two met while working in the same office building in Houston, Texas. She had a job at an insurance company. He was selling encyclopedias door-to-door. In the mid-1980s, Eric Wilhelm was working a job he didn’t consider stable enough to support a growing family. The two decided to leave Texas for Georgia with $800 in the bank, only to learn that a job he was promised in Atlanta had fizzled.

Wilhelm found himself living on his brother’s couch in Atlanta and scouring the classifieds while his wife and their firstborn stayed with relatives in another state. Four lonely months later, Wilhelm found a job, and they reunited. The couple started the grind of living paycheck to paycheck in Atlanta. He sometimes worked two jobs in warehousing, sales, marketing or logistics. She was an office manager.

By 1994, Wilhelm – a college dropout from Ohio and a self-described problem-solver and workaholic – was itching to start his own business. With a $50,000 loan from his brother, he launched Wilpak, a supply chain/contract packaging company that quickly became an industry leader. It would be the first of 10 businesses he’s owned, with one of the latest being The Cigar Cellar in Kennesaw.

In 2006, debt-free and ready for the next challenge, Wilhelm sold Wilpak. He gave 10% – or about $4 million – of the proceeds from the sale to his 38 employees.

Many of those employees rejoined him at Coregistics, a state-of-the-art contract packing supply-chain service company that he started and was booming a decade later. He sold the majority of his company stock last year and handed out bonuses totaling $19.2 million to 137 employees.

Annette Cutchens, vice president of customer solutions at Coregistics, said the bonuses were right in character for Wilhelm.

“As an employer, Eric has always been one that recognizes people when they do good,” she said. “They just don’t advertise it.”

He gave her an advance on her bonus when he heard she was trying to find her dream home in the north Georgia mountains, she said.

With a go-big-or-go-home type mentality, the Wilhelms have supported numerous charities through the years. But three – American Diabetes Foundation, The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and Be The Match: Bone Marrow Donor Registry – are close to their hearts and have received hundreds of thousands of dollars since 2004. Deborah Wilhelm and one of their three children are type 1 diabetics.

Joy King, executive director of Be The Match, said the Wilhelms are “really helping us create a world where every patient can receive their life-saving therapy.” The nonprofit has helped more than 125,000 patients with blood disorders, such as leukemia, have transplants. It also manages the world’s most diverse donor registry.

For the past 17 years, Deborah Wilhelm has fulfilled a passion for breeding, training, and competing champion dressage horses at their Marietta home. She is retired now, but not her husband.

He says he’s still always looking for the next problem to solve, opportunity, or adventure. Earlier this year, the Wilhelms brought together nearly 300 of the 500 offspring of his grandfather, who worked as a custodian at a Catholic school during the Depression.

“We’re still getting cards and letters about how it was a life-changing event,” Wilhelm said.

He said that was the goal for the reunion, as it is for life.

“The takeaway is, regardless of where you are, you only complete your mission if you are making your community, the world a better place – someway, somehow, and it doesn’t” have to be financial,” Wilhelm said.

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