Robert Charles Loudermilk Sr. got his business start in the late 1930s as a 10-year-old entrepreneur selling one of Atlanta’s most famous products. He and a buddy walked and took street cars from their blue-collar neighborhood off Howell Mill Road to Buckhead, where they would sell bottled Coca-Colas to people going to movies in what is now the Buckhead Theatre.
In 2008, Loudermilk, the founder of Atlanta based Aaron’s furniture and electronics rental, brought his life full circle by stroking a seven-figure check to refurbish the rundown former movie palace into a community entertainment venue.
Loudermilk dreamed of being a Buckhead mover and shaker even as a youngster, but he didn’t think he could make that happen.
His mother ran a meat-and-three restaurant.
“Back then, if you didn’t have a well-known family name, then you were closed out of a lot of opportunities,” Loudermilk wrote in a 2009 Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial.
So he joined the U.S. Navy after high school and never planned to return. But after his military service, Loudermilk came home in the 1940s and took classes at Georgia Tech, and later at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where he graduated in 1950 with a degree in commerce. Soon after, he responded to his mother’s call.
“My mom was offered the chance to own a 200-seat restaurant, but said she wouldn’t do it unless I came back to Atlanta,” he wrote. “That’s when the entrepreneurial spirit came out in me. I knew I wouldn’t be happy unless I had the chance to start and run my own business.”
While still helping his mother in 1955, he started Aaron Rents with $500 he borrowed. He bought 300 folding metal chairs from Sears, Roebuck & Co. and rented them for 10 cents per day to auction houses.
People told him a furniture rental business wouldn’t work, but for more than 50 years Loudermilk proved naysayers wrong. He grew Aaron’s into a multi-billion-dollar company, renting to people and offices, taking it public in 1982. Then, the former boy who feared being shut out of Atlanta society used his newfound wealth to buy a 4,500-acre quail hunting plantation in south Georgia.
The conservative Republican also shaped Democratic politics in the city. He formed an unlikely bond with Young, the civil rights activist turned politician. The two didn’t always agree, but they tutored each other in race, politics, money and business and became close friends. Loudermilk even helped run Young’s campaigns. He later ponied up the money for the statue of Young in downtown Atlanta.
Loudermilk continued growing Aaron’s into a company producing more than $2 billion a year in overall revenue.
All along the way, Loudermilk gave away money ― eventually more than $35 million, the family estimated — to causes across this state and others. Many of the gifts went to organizations helping the poor or working class families such as the Atlanta Food Bank and Covenant House, which is a haven for homeless youth.
That’s where his heart was, his son Robert C. “Robin” Loudermilk said.
“He grew up poor as a church mouse without three nickels to rub together,” he said. “One time, he was playing stickball in the yard and went to ask his mother for a nickel for a Coca-Cola. She said we don’t have a nickel. From that forward, he said he was going to have a nickel for a Coke, and he was going to help other people.”
He also gave large gifts to the University of North Carolina, which named a building after him.
Along the road to success he endured some criticism. Critics said his business model took advantage of lower-income people, eventually costing them more in rent than the purchase price of the furnishings. He argued that it provided a service to them by providing necessities they could not afford or didn’t have credit to buy.
He was elected as the chairman of the MARTA board in 1984, where he was a white Republican in a city government that had been dominated by Black Democratic politicians since the election of Maynard Jackson. Some Black city leaders challenged his election, hinting there were racist designs behind it. He kept his head down and worked away.
And the Buckhead Community Bank he founded in 1998 went under in the Great Recession, weighted with bad debt.
Some folks even complained about his re-do of the Buckhead Theatre.
“No matter what you do, no matter where you do it, no matter how much money you spend on it, people are going to complain,” concert promoter Alex Cooley, Loudermilk’s partner in the theater’s redesign, said at the time.
Though the family left Aaron’s behind — Charlie Loudermilk retired as chairman in 2012 and the family sold most of their company stock by 2015 — they used their profits to continue influencing the city’s development. They founded the Loudermilk Companies. Robin, a former Aaron’s CEO, is president of the real-estate development and investment firm that continues to shape Atlanta’s growing skyline.
“Throughout his life, he remained devoted to ensuring Atlanta is a prosperous, unified and forward-thinking community,” Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said. “From his philanthropic efforts to his work integrating marginalized Atlanta businesses into the larger business community, his accomplishments were many and his actions matched his mantra of ‘Work hard, dream big.’”
Gov. Brian Kemp said Loudermilk’s work “touched countless Georgians, whether they realized it or not.”
“As a prominent business owner and developer in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and beyond, he helped guide Atlanta into what it is today — the economic engine of the South,” Kemp said in a statement.
The late famed Atlanta architect John Portman, one of Loudermilk’s close friends, credited him and his boot-strapping success story with helping build the ethos of Atlanta in the modern age.
Portman told the AJC in 2012, “He was a part of the whole idea that we could be whatever we wanted to be.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will update this story with funeral arrangements.