Tycoon’s dreams began in Buckhead

Credit: bhonarvar@ajc.com

Credit: bhonarvar@ajc.com

Aaron’s founder Charles Loudermilk aims to leave mark on place that inspired his aspirations.

When the weather’s nice, Charlie Loudermilk likes to talk to strangers in the park that bears his name.

“Look how comfortable that guy is,” Loudermilk said, gesturing to a low brick wall like the one he was sitting on, toward a young man leaning on a backpack. The other day, Loudermilk said, he talked to a woman who told him she had just been transferred to Atlanta. He wasn’t sure if she was telling the truth, he said, or if she was a hooker.

“You sure do meet some unusual people in the park,” he said.

Loudermilk, the 83-year-old chairman and founder of the 1,830-store rent-to-own company Aaron’s, grew up about eight miles from the former Buckhead Triangle Park, where he now comes to think on the occasional sunny afternoon. A man who started one of Atlanta’s largest publicly traded companies sits in a shaded area facing a broken fountain in the triangle’s base, his sharp blue eyes taking in the passers-by.

When a firetruck rushes by, sirens wailing, Loudermilk raises his ringless left hand and waves at the firefighters. Last month, he said, he hosted a barbecue for Buckhead’s firefighters to thank them for being the first responders when he suffered a heart attack Jan. 3.

His gray hair, white at the temples, is freshly cut and parted to the right. He wears a blue-checked Aaron’s button-down shirt and sits with his arms crossed. His legs are crossed at the ankles.

This isn’t really how Loudermilk wants to spend his time, reflecting and relaxing. But age has forced him to do what his first marriage and fatherhood couldn’t: slow down.

“Work to me is not what most people think is work,” he said. “Work to me is pleasant. I want to do it.”

It led to the dissolution of his first marriage. Meaning he did not spend enough time with his three children. Now, his knees are giving out and he has relinquished the CEO title to his son, Robin. He has written a book, about his mother. He focuses on maintaining his plantation and projects like the revamped Buckhead Theatre. And he occasionally sits in the park.

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Watching Buckhead

As a child, Loudermilk would bum a ride to Buckhead, or take the streetcar from his Howell Mill Road home to the corner of Peachtree and Roswell roads, where the half-acre park now sits. Outside his uncle’s dry- cleaning shop, he would sell Cokes for a nickel. With the proceeds, Loudermilk would venture into a nearby pool hall or the Buckhead Theatre --- a venue he now owns.

“I was raised over in a blue-collar area,” Loudermilk said. “Kids went barefooted.”

His father was a lineman with a fourth-grade education. The family did not get indoor plumbing until Loudermilk was 11, he said. When he transferred to a cross-town high school in Buckhead to get a better education and joined the ROTC, he was embarrassed to learn, when he tried on the uniform, that he was the only teen who did not wear underwear.

“When my family made me come over here for high school, I saw how the other half lived,” he said. “My goal was always to be a millionaire, from very early on. From whenever I could really realize the difference between rich and poor.”

For Loudermilk, the epitome of rich was what he saw growing up near Buckhead, and looking in.

“You could see everything that was happening if you were curious, and I was,” he said of the streetcar ride down Peachtree.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Starting Aaron’s

So Buckhead was what Loudermilk yearned for, though there was a time when he had no intention of living in Atlanta again.

He left when he joined the Navy and planned to stay away, thinking he would be unable to escape his upbringing to become one of the Buckhead elite. He went to college, first at Georgia Tech and then at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where he studied commerce. He got a job, with Pfizer.

But when Loudermilk’s mother asked him to come back to town to help expand her meat-and-three restaurant business, he listened. He started Aaron’s on the side, renting candelabras and silver punch bowls in Buckhead --- the only place, he said, where people were using such items.

The company at various points rented hospital equipment and chairs for parties, but now rents furniture and electronics. Aaron’s customers are mainly lower-income people who have difficulty getting credit or transient workers who cannot or do not want to bring a couch or computer when they move.

Loudermilk stepped down as the company’s president and CEO in 2008, handing the reins to his son, but he remains involved with the company as its chairman. In 2010, Aaron’s had revenues of $1.8 billion. Loudermilk is worth $146 million in Aaron’s stock alone, but his wealth extends beyond that.

Critics say the company preys on the poor, but Loudermilk said he is proud of what Aaron’s provides, and defends his business model.

“I get letters from people thanking me for letting them have a refrigerator,” he said. “I know that we are giving people necessary goods. I feel good about what we’re doing.”

Ed Mierzwinski, consumer director of the Public Interest Research Group, says he gets letters, too.

“We hear from people who are told [by rent-to-own companies] they can pay $10 a week for the American Dream when they can’t because most people don’t end up owning the products,” Mierzwinski said. “If they do, they’ve paid two or three times more than what it’s worth.”

Living in Buckhead

As Aaron’s became more successful, Loudermilk was finally able to inhabit Buckhead, the place he had been an outsider.

The 11-story Aaron’s building where Loudermilk has a top-floor office is in Buckhead, and he lives on 15 acres in the Atlanta neighborhood. The park that was named for him could fit in his property 30 times.

Loudermilk was a founder of the Buckhead Coalition (a business group that promotes the area), started the Buckhead Community Bank (it failed in 2009) and restored the Buckhead Theatre he used to frequent.

“I never dreamed someday I would own it,” he said of some of the property he has acquired. “Buckhead was kind of somewhere you aspired to be.”

He was surprised to learn the Atlanta City Council decided to change the name of the Buckhead Triangle Park to honor him. The move was unexpected.

“To me, that’s big,” he said. “That’s somewhat permanent.”

Before the name changed, Loudermilk wanted to put a clock tower in the park to signify the town-center feel it had for him. He still thinks the clock tower should be part of the final design, but is wary of donating money for the project, for fear that someone thinks he paid for the park to get its name, too.

Revamping a park

A woman walking through the park recognized Loudermilk and said hello, but at the Bank of America branch across the street, teller Verithia Hood said while she is familiar with Aaron’s, she did not realize the park had a name --- let alone who its namesake was.

Hood sees the park used by personal trainers exercising with clients and homeless people who sleep on the ledges. No one from the bank takes a lunch break out there, she said.

The park is slated for a makeover, said Bill Harrison, founding principal of Harrison Design Associates, a friend of Loudermilk’s and the designer of the new park.

In its current iteration, the focus is a sculpture called “The Storyteller,” a statue of a buck sitting on a log and holding a two-pronged lamppost, surrounded by smaller animals that sit in a circle around the long-broken fountain. Most of the Bradford pear and maple trees in the park are dying, Harrison said.

Before the renaming, Loudermilk had a stake in the park’s future because of his interest in Buckhead, Harrison said. Now, he has an even greater interest in seeing the park refurbished since it will reflect on him in the future.

“He’s not an arrogant, egotistical man,” Harrison said. “He’s not a humble man, either.”

Giving back

Loudermilk said it wasn’t easy to fulfill his dream. For the first several years he was in business, he got by by kiting checks, writing notes from one account to the other and hoping enough time would pass before funds were deposited so he could keep the business alive.

Now, he’s donating millions, from $3 million to Archbold Medical Center to more than $10 million to UNC.

“You get to my age, there are some things you do to tell your grandchildren, great-grandchildren you’ve given back,” he said.

Loudermilk said he doesn’t expect to be remembered widely generations from now. But he hopes that some of his largesse will be recognized by family members, who will be able to say they “came from good stock.”

There is still more to do, Loudermilk said, particularly in Buckhead. He is convinced it is going to come back strong, but admits there have been setbacks for the area as the economy tanked and projects, like the long-stalled Streets of Buckhead, were beset by issues. Originally intended as a high-end “Rodeo Drive of the South,” the development was recently scaled down and renamed Buckhead Atlanta.

Sam Massell, president of the Buckhead Coalition and a former Atlanta mayor, said he doesn’t doubt Loudermilk’s continuing contribution to the city and the area. Loudermilk feels a deep connection to Buckhead, Massell said. He came a long way in just eight miles.

“He’s so proud of this place, his business, and rightfully so,” Massell said. “He’s Mr. Buckhead, as far as I’m concerned.”