Herman J. Russell purchased his first property in 1946—a vacant lot where he later built a duplex. Over the years, he would acquire and develop numerous real estate projects in the Jim Crow South. He would also build a construction powerhouse that would consistently rank among the largest black-owned companies and reshape the Atlanta skyline.
In recognition of these and other achievements, BLACK ENTERPRISE awarded Russell the A.G. Gaston Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. He has since handed the reins for H.J. Russell & Co. (No. 15 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE COMPANIES list with $248.4 million in revenues) to his sons, but he remains very active in the company leadership, serving as chairman. BE spoke with Russell, who authored Building Atlanta: How I Broke through Segregation to Launch a Business Empire, about his seven decades in the industry. Here’s what he had to say:
The construction industry is one of the industries that has very little minority participation. What advice can you offer an African American entrepreneur looking to get into this area to help them overcome that?
Herman Russell: Do not hesitate. Push for opportunity but most of all be persistent, prompt, and reliable. African Americans make up a huge percentage of the population so it is important that you work hard to increase the percentage of our participation and you should seek it as if your life depends on it.
How has the industry changed over the years from the perspective of someone trying to land that first contract?
Russell: As a young entrepreneur growing up in Atlanta with all the challenges African Americans experienced just being African American, you can imagine that the business world was no less challenging. But the key here is that it was challenging, it was not impossible. I worked hard to focus on my business, ensuring that it was competitive and maintained a consistent reputation of honesty and good workmanship. While those characteristics were not always considered in the decision making process, it did often help and eventually made a difference when considering my company among the others.
Today, it is still a competitive process and pots are growing smaller as the participant list gets longer. Although the RFP process is more sophisticated than it was in the earlier years, it is still the company whose good reputation precedes them and who can come in as the best bid at a reasonable price [that] will get the contract.