Michael Kay, Atlanta businessman and philanthropist, dies at 83

Helped many key nonprofits
Michael Kay was a successful businessman and key supporter of nonprofits and their work in Atlanta

Credit: courtesy

Credit: courtesy

Michael Kay was a successful businessman and key supporter of nonprofits and their work in Atlanta

Jared Powers could be walking his dog during an evening, puzzling over a budgetary challenge or board-staff relationship at the multi-million-dollar nonprofit he heads.

On more than a few occasions, that led Powers, CEO of the Marcus Jewish Community Center, to call Michael Kay, an Atlanta businessman and philanthropist with a knack for listening, asking spot-on questions, mentorship, strategic thinking and sound business operations.

“You’d be hard pressed to find someone I relied upon more than Michael,” who was also a member of the center’s board for years, Powers said.

“I think he just helped me think much more like a community leader, that my responsibility went beyond just running the JCC. Michael Kay was not big on words, but when he spoke, people listened.”

That keen sense leadership was part of Kay’s emotional bedrock. For more than 40 years in Atlanta, the New York-born hospitality executive cast a long shadow by broadening and deepening the scope of non-profit leadership and services in both the Jewish and larger communities. He served the Atlanta Botanical Garden, United Way, YearUp Atlanta, the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta and many others. His acumen married to deep, caring character and insight also helped him engineer multiple corporate turnarounds.

Michael Zola Kay, 83, passed away Jan. 19 from complications from a fall. He is survived by wife Ann Kay, sons Johnathan Kay (Marcia) and Todd Lubin (Lindsay); daughters Jennifer Gilbert and Alison Doerfler, eight grandchildren and his brother Jeffrey Kay.

A degree from the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration led to a robust career in hospitality management, which brought him to Atlanta in 1980 as CEO with the Omni Hotel chain. That was after he helped engineer a turnaround for Americana Hotels.

In 1991, he also helped reverse the fortunes of airline catering company LSG Sky Chefs, perhaps his crown jewel in turnarounds. In the book “Straight from the CEO,” he recounted boosting profitability, slashing operating costs and helping improve travelers’ impressions of the service by empowering managers and introducing new values.

Longtime friend Mike Leven, who worked helping Kay turn around Americana Hotels, says Kay worked management magic by employing a process known as “constructive change.”

“It was developed from an Eastern way of doing things instead of Western,” said Leven. “It was working backward from the end result, planning from the end result instead of looking at where you are and working from there,” he said.

He used a similar tactic in forays into the non-profit sector, said Gary Miller, the former head of Jewish Family and Career Services.

“He would say, ‘if you closed your eyes and dreamed a little and imagined five years out from now, what would success look like? How would you know it? And how would it make you feel?’” recalled Miller.

The approach paid off as Kay and Ann co-chaired a Jewish Family and Career Services capital campaign that resulted in an expanded headquarters and more space for a the employment program. His efforts at Hands on Atlanta led to new digs for them as well.

“He was a pro at listening to people,” recalled Ann. “He had a very big heart and causes were very important to him, giving back to the community and to those less fortunate.” That stemmed from parental teaching, she thinks.

Kay was also instrumental in crafting a strategic plan for the Atlanta Jewish community, said Eric Robbins, President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

So important was his work that he was graced with their lifetime achievement award in 2021, Robbins added.

Whether aiding Jewish causes or the city at-large with stints on boards, Kay was a full-on philanthropist said Alison Doerfler.

“Some people write checks. Some people volunteer here and there. He embodied all of that — time, talent and treasure.”

There was also a sartorial puckish sense about him, said family. He had an affectation for printed ties, some with humorous themes, eye-catching argyle socks and sometimes-unusual glasses.

The Kays also built a marveled-at art collection, starting with paintings and then moving into contemporary glass.

Family members and friends say Kay lived a deeply rich life bounded by strong moral guardrails.

“In the middle of a meeting he would always be the one to ask, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’” Roberts said.