The Atlanta Falcons played a scrimmage in the empty Mercedes-Benz Stadium Friday as they prepared to meet the Seattle Seahawks on Sept. 13, and team owner Arthur Blank was there to watch and to wonder what COVID-19 will do to his football season.
The prospects for pro sports, buffeted by the pandemic and social unrest, change every day, he said.
“It’s like dancing with a gorilla,” said Blank, speaking from his office at the stadium. “The dance doesn’t end unless the gorilla says it’s over.”
In the meantime, the gorilla is stomping some of his properties but leaving others untouched.
Blank had to close his Montana guest ranch, Mountain Sky (which he said hadn’t been closed in more than 100 years) but said his chain of golf supply shops, PGA TOUR Superstore, was doing better than ever.
Soccer still goes on, though Atlanta United played Nashville in an empty stadium, with pre-recorded crowd noise piped over the public address system. (”I think it sounded really well.”)
What the experience made him reflect about, said Blank, was how well the principles that he outlines in his new book, “Good Company,” serve business in bad times as well as good.
None of his employees has been furloughed, he said, adding that “those decisions are driven by the same set of values that we have in normal times.”
“Good Company” is an account of Blanks’ business life after he left The Home Depot in 2001, and a summation of the management credo that guides his decisions.
That credo, which made The Home Depot into an $88 billion corporation, can be summed up: Put people first; listen and respond; include everyone; lead by example; innovate continuously; give back to others.
“It may be hard for some people to believe in it, to fully endorse it, to fully live that way, and make decisions that way,” said Blank, 77, “but to me it is ingrained. It works not only through times of prosperity when all options are positive but also when you have to make really difficult decisions.”
The book begins in a small pharmacy in Queens, New York, where Blank’s father, Max, worked, “mixing tinctures, grinding powders and filling capsules.” It was owned by Blank’s uncle, Sam, and it served as a community center.
Customers at the pharmacy “may have come for the items on their shopping list,” he writes, “but they stayed for the company.”
Blank writes that the success of The Home Depot stores is due to the effort to duplicate that same sense of fellowship.
After leaving The Home Depot in 2001, Blank adhered to the same set of guidelines in all his subsequent businesses, including his guest ranch, which he bought in 2001, and as owner of the Atlanta Falcons, which he bought for $545 million in 2002.
Some blame the big-box store for wiping out such entities as the corner pharmacy, and they bemoan the loss of community fostered by Max and Sam.
But Blank writes “I don’t think it has to be that way.” The Home Depot had hundreds of big-box stores when he left in 2001, and “Every one of those stores felt as much like a community as that little pharmacy on the corner in Queens.”
Large corporations come and go, he said Friday. “Some are still there; some are not.” Sears Roebuck, which entered Chapter 11 last year, “should have been The Home Depot.” What happened to Sears is “not complicated,” he added. “They stopped listening to their customers, and they stopped responding to their customers. They lost the marketplace.”
Back in 2010 Blank launched his greatest sports success by listening to his pre-teen son, Josh. Blank had spent many hours driving Josh and his brothers around the city to play in elite soccer games. He saw how much excitement surrounded the sport, and he paid attention when Josh said he should get his own team.
(On the sidelines of one of Josh’s games, Blank also struck up an acquaintanceship with soccer mom Angie Macuga, who became his third wife.)
Blank decided to start a soccer club from scratch. “At the outset, I felt this would work,” he said. “I also felt that this would be a great asset for the community.”
His book details Atlanta United’s triumphs: selling out stadiums from its first game, and, in its second season, winning the MLS championship.
It also follows Blank’s ongoing work in the Westside neighborhood, which borders another Blank project, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Through his Blank Family Foundation, he has supported expanding education, housing, health care and other opportunities in the historic neighborhood.
Blank said he plans on “recycling” most of his $6 billion fortune through his foundation.
Not all is sunny in “Good Company.” Blank recounts the sad story of former Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, imprisoned for running a dog-fighting ring. He also devotes a chapter to the 2017 Super Bowl, in which the Falcons, ahead 28-3 in the third quarter, somehow snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and lost to the New England Patriots in overtime.
How often, Blank was asked, does he think about that moment? “I don’t think about it, really,” he joked, “unless people like Bo Emerson bring it up.”
When he does think about it, he said, he remembers that the team had a great year and a wonderful opportunity, that they made some bad decisions, but “there’s no point in living in the past. We want to learn from the past, but you can’t live in the past.”
“Good Company” by Arthur Blank
Available Sept. 15, 2020
Foreward by President Jimmy Carter
Available at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Google Play, and at independent bookstores, including Decatur’s Eagle Eye Book Shop.