Appearing during Black History Month, a new documentary film is being released on the inspiring life and legacy of iconic Atlanta businessman Herman J. Russell.
In the making for over a year, Building Atlanta: The Story of Herman J. Russell, is about the trailblazing entrepreneur who founded and built H.J. Russell & Co. into one of the nation’s largest black-owned commercial real estate development and construction firms. The nearly hour-long film premieres on ATL PBA on Sunday, Feb. 16 at 9 p.m. and re-airs at 9 p.m. on Feb. 23. The film includes interviews with notable people from Atlanta who knew Russell and witnessed some of his accomplishments.
Started in 1952 by the late Russell, the company has grown into a nationally known player in an industry dominated by white males. The firm evolved from its start as a plastering business into a builder that has transformed the skylines of American cities, particularly Atlanta. Among the high-profile projects built with Russell’s involvement were the $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the Georgia Dome—the current and former homes of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
In 1979, Russell founded Atlanta-based Concessions International, the first African American-owned business to become a top airport concessionaire in America. That business today does about $50 million in annual revenue. But Russell’s journey was not easy. In his book, Building Atlanta: How I Broke Through Segregation to Launch a Business Empire, Russell talked about challenges his company faced and overcame during his business career. His entrepreneurial spirit lasted throughout his life until his passing in 2014.
Building Generational Success
“For our family, having our father’s and grandfather’s story told through the eyes and words of those who knew him best is a particularly impactful approach the filmmakers use,” said Herman J. Russell’s son, Michael B. Russell, CEO, H. J. Russell, in a press release.
“As humble as he was, I think he would enjoy seeing what his friends had to say about him in addition to seeing his life story on television. He would hope this documentary will inspire people, particularly young people, to strive even harder to reach their personal potential against all odds, and that’s what we hope it does too.”
Michael Russell, who became the company’s CEO in 2003, told Black Enterprise about how his father’s efforts laid the foundation to help H.J. Russell become the nation’s largest black-owned construction company. “He really established the reputation and brand from the results he produced over the 50 years he was involved with the business,” Russell says. “And from that, we’ve been blessed to be able to take that legacy. build upon it, do what we said we were going to do and execute at a high level.”
This year, the younger Russell projects the company’s revenue will rise slightly up to $180 million. With revenue around $178 million, H.J. Russell was No. 25 on the 2019 Top 100 list of the BE 100s, Black Enterprise’s annual ranking of America’s top black-owned businesses. The gain is expected to come from additional construction volume that H.J. Russell has been engaged in or will be engaged in 2020.
Leaving a Legacy of Entrepreneurship
In the documentary, the voices of Russell’s proteges are heard, along with business partners who witnessed firsthand his challenges. For instance, Robert “Bob” Holder, founder and chairman of Holder Construction, stated, “Herman and I were born within a month of each other, and within three miles of each other, but the two worlds could not have been more different. Everything I was born into was designed to make sure I succeeded; everything he was born into was designed to be sure he did not succeed. And Herman, in his lifetime, overcame all of that.”
As a lasting legacy to Russell, the Russell family has created the Russell Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, designed to encourage and support generations of entrepreneurs, especially black entrepreneurs, as he did throughout his life.
“The documentary is the inspirational back story on which the Russell Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (RCIE) is being created,” said Russell’s son and namesake, H. Jerome Russell Jr., who is chairman of the board of RCIE. “We want current and aspiring entrepreneurs to come to RCIE to reach their potential as entrepreneurs, and this film will help our members understand the legacy and foundation on which RCIE is built.”
The full documentary will be hosted on H. J. Russell & Co.’s YouTube channel and eventually on pba.org after the second airing.