J. Mack Robinson, Atlanta business tycoon, philanthropist dies

When J. Mack Robinson spoke, people listened. Not only in Atlanta, where his name is synonymous with business – so much so that Georgia State University’s business school bears it but also in Washington and across the pond.

In more than 60 years in business, Robinson made his mark in insurance, fashion, media and banking and through his philanthropy.

Georgia State named its business school for Robinson in 1998, the same year he gave a $10 million gift to the institution. His connection to the school dates back to 1941, when Robinson attended the Georgia Evening College, which is now GSU. The bombing of Pearl Harbor forced him into the military, he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a 1998 interview.

He planned to return to Georgia Evening College after the war, but his entrepreneurial spirit won out and he never finished his studies.

Robinson donated to hundreds of organizations and institutions, including Westminster Schools, which has a science building that bears his name.

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Much of Robinson’s charitable giving has been done privately and outside of the public eye. He rarely gave interviews, but his connections and influence were undeniable.

“He was the most modest man I’ve ever known,” said Edward Elson, former U.S. ambassador to Denmark. “He was brilliant without being condescending, and he was sophisticated yet down to earth in any activity he undertook.”

Robinson’s opinions were often sought out by politicians in every level of government, Elson said.

“From invitations to the White House to the governor’s mansion, he was always surprised he was invited,” the former ambassador said.

“Politicians from President Jimmy Carter to Gov. Joe Frank Harris have benefited from Robinson’s largesse,” stated a 1990 AJC article. The article outlined Robinson’s support for another longtime friend, Zell Miller, who that year won the first of two terms for governor.

“He really was comfortable with everyone, from the man at the gas station to the governor,” said long-time friend D. Raymond Riddle. “He could deal with anybody and had the confidence of everybody who dealt with him.”

Jesse Mack Robinson, a lifelong resident of Atlanta, died Friday from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 90.

He will be buried in a private ceremony. A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. Thursday at Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church. H.M. Patterson & Son, Spring Hill Chapel, is in charge of arrangements.

“He was a man who had no sense of putting himself out front,” said Hilton Howell Jr., his son-in-law. “He was a reserved Southern gentleman.”

His career began at age 10 during the Great Depression when he took a job at the Atlanta Journal as a “helper.” Two years later, he worked seven days a week as a carrier, learning a valuable lesson, he later recalled: “The more I worked, the more I made.” By 15, he was a circulation manager, earning enough to buy a 1931 Model A Ford. The Journal was his “only full-time job,” he once said, meaning it was the only time he worked for anyone.

Robinson’s first major company, Delta Life Insurance Co. founded in 1954, was a byproduct of his experience selling cars. It only took him a few years to realize financing car loans made more money than selling the cars themselves. By the 1960s Robinson owned finance companies in more than 100 Southern cities.

The insurance business led Robinson to cross paths in with French designer Yves Saint Laurent. In the early ‘60s, Robinson owned a small insurance company in Switzerland, which was approached to invest in Saint Laurent’s fashion house. Robinson decided he would personally finance the fashion house. By the mid-‘60s, weary of the back-and-forth travel to France and the publicity, Robinson sold his 80 percent interest for $1 million, not much more than his total investment. In 1999, Saint Laurent’s company sold for an estimated $1 billion. Robinson later said he wished he hadn’t sold his portion of the business when he did.

The fashion house was one of a very few business missteps Robinson made. Riddle, the former president of Wachovia Bank of Georgia, said one of Robinson’s best moves was community banking.

Since state laws made it difficult for large banks to start branches, Robinson focused on creating or buying community banks. In the 1960s and 1970s, Robinson purchased banks in smaller towns with large growth potential.

“The banks were his big move; he invested a lot in small banks and profited when they were merged into big banks,” Riddle said.

Robinson went on to open 23 banks in 76 towns, according to Forbes. In 1972 he sold the finance company branches to First National Bank of Atlanta, making him its largest stockholder. First Atlanta later merged with First Wachovia Corp.

In 1974, he purchased Atlantic American Corp., an Atlanta-based insurance company, which grew to become a large holding company with subsidiaries of various specialty insurance.

By 1990, Robinson had become one of the richest men in the Southeast and he said it was time to slow down. He noted that he had overcome cancer, a heart attack and a plane crash and he was at an age — 67 — where he wanted to play more golf.

But he didn’t slack off. Two years later, Robinson and some partners purchased Gray Communications, an Albany-based firm that included small- to medium-sized newspapers and television stations.

“He had an unusual creativity in business,” Elson said.

Robinson’s attention was also important on the charity circuit, where he supported the High Museum of Art, United Way, Crawford Long Hospital and many other organizations. In 1994, he and his wife, Nita, were named Georgia Philanthropists of the Year by the National Society of Fund Raising Executives.

Former Gov. Carl Sanders said Robinson’s success in business allowed the businessman to be “extremely generous” toward hundreds of causes.

“He helped a number of people that most would not have helped,” Sanders said. “Most people don’t know about all of the people he’s helped.”

But more than his business decisions, his giving, or his net worth, Robinson said he most treasured his good name and reputation.

“I value the credit that my name holds more than anything,” Robinson said.

In addition to his wife of 54 years, Robinson is survived by his daughters, Robin Robinson Howell of Atlanta, and Jill Robinson Forsey of San Diego, Calif.; brother, Marvin Lewis Robinson of Alpharetta; and nine grandchildren.

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