At 85, former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell has accomplished many things in his life, but shedding his workaholic behavior is not one of them.
As president of the Buckhead Coalition, Massell still works every day, trying to promote economic development in the upscale area while improving the quality of life. Those goals sometimes conflict with one another when traffic congestion, noise and crime are added to the equation.
Massell discusses that issue, as well as what he learned from four separate careers – commercial real estate (20 years), politics (22 years, including some overlap with real estate), tourism (13 years) and his current job (25 years). And that doesn’t count the Atlanta native’s childhood endeavors that shaped the rest of his life.
Q: You developed an entrepreneurial spirit at an early age. What happened?
A: I’m a child of the Depression. My father was a commercial real estate developer who lost the business in the Depression and then went into law.
He never told me I had to go out and work, but he once brought home a pushcart that you sell ice-cream from, and he gave it to me. He told me, “I know where you can buy ice-cream wholesale and sell it retail by going up and down the block.” I was about 9-years-old at that time.
Then, I opened a Coca-Cola stand and he’d encourage me to add cheese crackers. He told me you can get them for 3 cents and sell them for 5 cents. I got friends of mine to put advertising circulars in mailboxes in the neighborhood and I paid them with free pop. The stand got so big that one day the police came by and told me I had to get a business license if I didn’t cut back sales.
My father encouraged me and instilled in me a work ethic that has stayed with me for my entire life. In fact, I’m a workaholic. It’s one of my serious sins. I really do come to the office seven days a week.
Q: Even though you weren’t afraid to sell food to strangers at a young age, you still lacked self-confidence. What changed that?
A: When I was in high school in Druid Hills I was actually an introvert. I didn’t think much of me and my principal didn’t either. He told me I’d never amount to anything. I was not a good student.
One day, a classmate was running for student body president and he asked me to paint his campaign signs, which an introvert can do. I did that and he got elected. He turned around and made me student body treasurer. I told him he was crazy. But he insisted that I do it and it really changed my life. I saw that I could do something in school and do it well.
From then on, if there wasn’t an organization I could join, I’d create one, like the philatelist and bowling clubs. In college and later in life when I was in the business community, I continued to be active in organizations.
Q: After graduating from college and law school, you went into commercial real estate. What did you learn?
A: I got a job selling, leasing and managing commercial real estate.
I was selling myself before politics. I claimed to be the world’s only specialist in doctor buildings. Back then, nobody was doing that. Today, real estate companies have whole divisions dedicated to the medical profession.
My first building was across from the High Museum. Marketing is my strong suit. I called on the medical society to name this building for the best, deceased doctor in Atlanta long before naming rights became popular. I then printed brochures saying the building named after Cyrus Strickler was named by the Fulton County Medical Society.
We opened that building 100 percent full. I did similar things in Chattanooga and Jacksonville. If I hadn’t gotten bitten by the political bug, I would have been a rich guy.
Q: You started out in politics on the city council of Mountain Park, where you had a cabin. Later, you became president of the Atlanta Board of Aldermen (now called the Atlanta City Council) and mayor. But you lost your re-election bid to Maynard Jackson in 1973, partially because of a major campaign mistake. What happened?
A: I’m an opportunist. When I look back at my life, when opportunities were there I grabbed them. That’s how I progressed in politics, sometimes by running for an open seat.
As far as my mayoral re-election loss, the time had come for a black mayor. Blacks came to represent a majority of the city.
The saddest part of the campaign was the slogan: “Atlanta is too young to die.”
Blacks and even some of my white friends took it as an affront. Boy, we could not convince people it was not racial.
It hurt me in the campaign and it hurt me emotionally.
Q: How did you pick yourself up?
A: An uncle of mine left a note in my mailbox the night of the election. He encouraged me to look forward and not backward, and to realize that I had made important contributions to the city.
I felt I was mayor at a time of transformation, when Atlanta went from a white political power to a black political power. I helped guide that transformation. I’m proud we came out as well as we did, much better than some other cities around the country.
After the election, I had no option but to move forward. I wanted to do something different. I bought a travel agency. We sold dreams. I liked the challenge of learning a whole new language, new places and new regulations.
Years later, as people visited me seeking advice, I found out that the vast majority of people are unhappy with what they’re doing, which is sad. I’ll admit it takes courage to leave a place where you’re making a living and seek out something else where you may not succeed. But if you’re not happy, you just have to do it. You’ve got to believe that if you work hard enough, you’ll be OK.
Also, young people can get some good experience by volunteering, either for a civil organization or a political one. There’s a thin line between the two. We’re coming into a city election where 26 offices will be voted on. Go volunteer to work on the campaign for one of them. They’d love to have you.
Bonus Q: While running your travel business 25 years ago, you were tapped to lead the Buckhead Coalition, a group of 100 CEOs from major businesses in the area. Over the years, some of the 78,000 residents have criticized you and your organization for aggravating traffic congestion and reducing the quality of life, while promoting economic growth. What’s your response?
A: When a big project is built, the neighborhood sometimes sues. But people didn’t object to the project they live in. Now that they have theirs, they don’t want more.
Right now, we have more than 6,000 apartments that have been announced for Buckhead since Jan. 2012. That’s a 50 percent increase. Apartments provide you with a labor market for the 28 million square feet of office space we’ve got. They provide you with patronage for the 1,400 retailers we’ve got.
We’ve supported projects to minimize the congestion and we supported last year’s failed transportation referendum for the metro area. The T-SPLOST was poorly done. They had all the money in the world. They had all the business leadership. We all supported it and saluted it.
But it didn’t have public involvement. Until the powers that be come back and say we’re going to redo it in that vein, it’s not going to pass. They left the voter out. You can’t pass a referendum without the voter.
Massell’s remarks were edited for length and style.
WE GO BEYOND THE HEADLINES
Each week, Business Assignment Editor Henry Unger has a candid conversation with a local leader as part of our commitment to bring you insightful coverage of metro Atlanta’s business scene.