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The House of Candler

Coca-Cola founder Asa Candler built modern-day Atlanta. Now, some heirs face foreclosures and possible ruin.


Personal JourneysA new Sunday feature that spotlights the lives of extraordinary individualsand the stories that define our region and connect our community.

In an unspoken reminder of his famous pedigree, Asa Griggs Candler V welcomes guests to his Sandy Springs office with the offer of a frosted Coca-Cola, then ambles to a boardroom to sit beneath a portrait of his great-grandfather rescued from storage at the Commerce Club.

The resemblance between the great-grandson and Coke’s founder is uncanny. A white mane of hair parted to the right, eyes that penetrate and a demeanor that conveys authority.

Just months earlier, Candler sat around a very different sort of table. Facing a bank creditor in a testy deposition, the 81-year-old descendant of Atlanta’s most storied family parried pointed questions about a $7.2 million debt and the state of his dwindling finances.

“I don’t have the money,” he told the lawyer, David Marmins.

Then, when pressed, he took it a step further.

“I don’t have any money,” Asa V said.

The Candler clan has lived by a motto, codified in Coca-Cola founder Asa Candler’s will and well-known to his five children long before he died almost a century ago. Their honest name, he’d tell them, is the best inheritance he could possibly pass down.

His great-grandson Asa Candler V is facing a growing crisis threatening that tradition. Candler inherited his famous forefather’s passion for real estate, but piece by piece his small empire is falling apart. The Great Recession has taken a great toll. Candler’s companies have lost about $37.5 million in real estate to foreclosure since the economy seized up, and banks and angry investors are nipping at all sides to recover much of that debt.

In the twilight of his career, Candler is facing the limits of his business skill and the dwindling power of the Candler name to extricate him from financial collapse.

Candler isn’t alone in his struggles, and many of his friends and competitors in the real estate business have taken desperate measures just as he has to avoid falling deeper into an abyss of red ink. But his downfall is a bruising reminder of the economic downturn’s apathy to players both puny and powerful.

If Asa Candler the elder was instrumental in writing modern Atlanta’s first chapter, his great-grandson is a symbol of the unfolding narrative today, a tale of economic uncertainty that grips Atlanta’s business community and threatens its future.

Tall and lean with gentle diction that teases out extra syllables, Asa V is in personality a quiet contrast to his great-grandfather. He shies from the spotlight his ancestor so adored, plays no outspoken role in Atlanta’s affairs, and never entertained the notion of running for office.

His optimism for the city’s future, though, hews to the Candler legacy. He insists this isn’t Atlanta’s final chapter, that his family isn’t going down without a fight. He’s confident the market will turn around, his investments will pay off, and the real estate business he built with his three sons will rebound.

“Atlanta’s future is great. Atlanta is not going away,” he said in an interview last month, two months after his taxing encounter with a creditor. “And we’ll be right in here trying. We’ll get out of this, along with everybody else, and build our share of the city.”

But at that uncomfortable June deposition, Asa V’s struggles were laid out in unforgiving terms.

The insistent lawyer asked Asa Candler V a question more suited to a high school student than a lifelong developer versed in the basics of borrowing. Did he know what it meant to default on a loan?

“It means,” the older man replied, “you don’t pay.”

2. Asa Candler, Coke’s founder, shaped Atlanta

Asa V never knew his great-grandfather, who died in 1929. Yet by the year of Asa V’s birth in 1931, the Candler legacy was already firmly imprinted on Atlanta’s skyline and growth.

In hindsight, Asa Candler’s achievements during Atlanta’s fabled New South renaissance take on an almost heroic proportion. His charitable donations fueled Emory University’s growth and left an incalculable legacy to the school. The sprawling racetrack he built in 1909 near Hapeville became the foundation for today’s bustling airport.

The auto show he lured to town ushered in a surge of paved roads. He founded Atlanta’s Central Bank & Trust, and lent money to growers and filled a massive warehouse with tons of cotton during a downturn that threatened thousands of farmers. And his swift response as mayor to the 1917 fire that destroyed part of the city helped preserve the rest of it.

But his passion was real estate. He amassed vast property across metro Atlanta, and helped develop Candler Park and Druid Hills. He built what was Atlanta’s tallest skyscraper, a grand 17-story structure called the Candler Building that was finished in 1906, and then built a sister tower in Manhattan.

His stubborn demeanor made him a paradox of sorts among Atlanta’s elite. He’d spend precious time and treasure battling over minor legal issues. But he’d give great sums of his growing fortune to favored charities in what seemed like spur-of-the-moment decisions.

As controlling at home as he was in the boardroom, the elder Candler ruled with equal firmness at his east Atlanta mansion. For his sons, there was no such thing as free money or debt forgiveness. He made his boys pay him back college loans with interest, and convinced his oldest son to work through school peddling Coca-Cola syrup to soda jerks. As the company’s size swelled, though, some of his children grew disillusioned with the prospect of running it.

The children sold the company for about $25 million — a value of more than $300 million in today’s dollars — to a group of investors led by Ernest Woodruff in 1919, a decision that some say infuriated their father. When he died a decade later, his will echoed his mantra: His children’s best inheritance would be his “good name as it has come to me from an honorable and honest ancestry.”

Some of the Candler scions would long regret the decision to sell the company before it became a global behemoth, but their wealth grew as the stock price blossomed. Like many clans catapulted into economic heights by new-found wealth, some limbs on the Candler family tree floundered even as others thrived. Some struggled with legal troubles, depression and business failures, their woes magnified by Atlanta’s press.

Ten of Candler’s 22 grandchildren became alcoholics, and six died of their addiction, according to Candler’s great-great granddaughter Elizabeth Candler Graham, who documented her family in a 1992 book called “The Real Ones.”

His grandson, John Howard Candler, was blessed and cursed with the family’s double-edged sword. He struggled with alcohol but inherited his grandfather’s love of real estate and penchant for bargaining, according to Graham’s book. A one-time political aide, he developed one of the South’s first shopping centers off Ponce de Leon at North Highland Avenue.

3. Asa Candler V finds passion in real estate

John Howard Candler’s son, Asa Candler V, eagerly followed his father’s real estate footsteps despite his father’s wish that he become a lawyer. After graduating from Emory University in 1952, he lasted three days in law school before joining Georgia’s Air National Guard, where he piloted F-84 fighter bombers.

He met his wife of nearly 58 years, June, on a blind date in Thomasville while visiting some fraternity brothers. Their relationship grew when he was stationed at an air base near Bainbridge some 40 miles away.

He was a “pretty lousy” real estate agent, by his own admission, before he opened his own realty company with a brother-in-law in 1961. Their first major project, a mall in Gainesville, Fla., was a daring venture built in the late 1960s with money cobbled together from several tiny banks because larger institutions weren’t willing to loan the money.

The business grew into apartment developments over the years. Asa V’s youngest son, Bill, said his father could have turned the company into a corporate giant, but instead chose to keep it in the family. Candler eventually partnered with his three boys — Asa VI, Dick and Bill — to grow their family firm.

“Dad is a classic entrepreneur developer. That’s what he does, and he does it well,” said Bill. “There are people that turn into great corporations and companies that we know. But dad is still the classic independent developer.”

Although Asa V only knew his great-grandfather through family lore, his namesake’s tough-love demeanor and hardy business acumen seemed to have survived through the generations.

Stephen Roberts, who was a twenty-something real estate novice when he joined Asa V’s firm in 1972, learned this the hard way.

Within a year, Roberts felt he had found a deal that would jumpstart his career and earn Candler’s respect.

It was a shopping center project in Riverdale anchored by Kroger. Roberts hired an architect to draw up drafts of the site. But the grocery chain eventually pulled out, and a disillusioned Roberts called his boss with the bad news. He still remembers Asa V’s response.

“Now you’ve learned. Welcome to the world of real estate development,” Asa V told him.

To drive home the point, he made his young staffer pay the $2,500 architect’s fee. It took Roberts 18 months to make good on his debt, but he did.

“It was tough love. Back then I didn’t like it, but he told me I had to learn a lesson and pay for my mistakes,” said Roberts, now one of Asa V’s dearest friends. “When I was good, he supported me. And when I was bad, he took me to the woodshed.”

Today, Candler works out of a 1970s office building in Sandy Springs that also houses several small businesses, including a chiropractor and accountants. Inside, a golf bag sits in the corner of Asa V’s second-floor office, and sketches of Publix shopping centers he built hang in the hall.

Greeting visitors on a day in August, Candler is dressed in khaki slacks and a crisp white polo shirt emblazoned with the logo for the Palmetto Golf Club in Aiken, S.C., a subtle reminder of his principal passion, golf.

Candler is known for his reticence, and during the course of a 90-minute interview, he alternated from candor to reserve, pausing for moments to consider a question before answering. He’s developed his own shorthand when discussing real estate and sprinkles the phrases into his speech. “Turns to worms” means a deal gone bust; a “hula hoop” is a momentary fad.

Candler was blunt about his finances, but coy about his involvement in Atlanta society and culture. The Candlers don’t sit on boards of charities and Asa V steered the conversation away from any outside involvement in civic groups.

Deeply proud of his great-grandfather, Candler conceded that the Candler name had opened many doors.

“The disadvantage is trying to live up to expectations,” he said.

Candler said he absorbed one family lesson: steer clear of alcohol. Chastened by the family’s history with alcoholism, Candler said he shied away from booze until his 30s, and now drinks only occasionally at social gatherings.

Candler reserved his harshest comments for what he called America’s “ruthless” economy, which toppled institutions big and small. Wall Street, General Motors and Chrysler got government bailouts, he noted, but no one in Washington was looking out for entrepreneurs like himself, a breed he called “man-on-the-street” developers.

The debts he owed weighed heavily on his mind, he said.

“It’s a struggle. You worry about it every day,” he said. “Nobody borrows money with the intent of not paying it back, particularly on a development deal.”

And yet Candler doesn’t act like a man on the brink of collapse. He golfs on slow afternoons at Peachtree Golf Club, one of the city’s most exclusive. His 3,200-square-foot home — a red-brick ranch with white columns bordered by far more ostentatious dwellings — sits on a hill, secluded in a leafy stretch of Northside Drive in Buckhead. Like much of the Candler family, his sons send their children to elite private schools.

The family views its financial problem in an almost fatalistic manner.

“It is what it is,” said Bill, an effervescent 53-year-old who inherited his father’s Atlanta drawl. The natural salesman of the group, Bill sounds an optimistic note about his company’s future, saying the headaches go with the territory.

“I love to say, ’If he made shoes, I’d be making shoes right now,’” Bill said of his father. “His dad did this, granddad did this, he’s done it, I do it. It’s all we know how to do.”

They certainly have plenty of fond memories from successful deals. By the early 2000s, the company had developed dozens of shopping centers across the South. The iconic family name didn’t hurt, either, as the Candler brand helped open doors.

In Georgia’s real estate gold rush — typified by a “build it and they will come” flourish of speculative development — Bill said they did things the right way. Their projects had the juice of real tenants on busy corners.

What the family didn’t know was that its expanding portfolio would become a growing menace on its balance sheet when the economy went south. A tidal wave of sour economic investments was about to crash down on them, soaking their good family name with it.

All Asa V had left free and clear, according to a bank statement he signed in 2011, was $30,000, hardly enough for a down payment on a typical Atlanta home.

The imperative to right his finances might explain why a man in his early 80s is still trying to make deals at a time when most men his age have headed for retirement.

Candler also offers his own reason: “People who retire die.”

4. Despite their name, the Candlers can’t outrun the real estate collapse

Mark Kamkariyan looked on Acworth Crossing much like the men who built it.

A Candler company developed the horseshoe-shaped strip mall on busy Cobb Parkway in 2006, near the peak of the economic boom when easy credit fueled development.

The Candlers signed a Best Buy, a Chili’s restaurant and a Michaels craft store, and high-end rug shop owner Kamkariyan wanted in. He paid above-market rent in 2007 to move his Golden Rugs store from a struggling nearby outlet and, he said, each week the genteel Dick Candler, Asa V’s middle son, would drop by to check in on his tenants.

Then the economy hit bottom. Business at neighboring shops dried up, and tenants started asking their landlord for breaks. The Candlers, Kamkariyan said, wouldn’t budge. A Chinese buffet next door bolted, and smaller spaces went unfilled after tenants left for cheaper rents or closed up for good.

In November 2010, the Candlers lost the complex to foreclosure on a $19.2 million loan.

The losses mounted. An analysis of Georgia court and real estate records show the Candlers and their companies have lost a total of about $37.5 million worth of real estate to foreclosure since 2008. Much of that debt was personally guaranteed by Asa V or his sons, and it often was funded by smaller banks.

To hear the Candlers tell it, they got stuck in an unavoidable cycle with few ways out.

Too-generous banks gave bloated loans to competitors who didn’t know the first thing about developing shopping centers, and when the economy stalled, they were left with property worth just a fraction of what it had been valued years earlier. Then the banks that made the loans went broke, with federal regulators or others selling off the notes for pennies on the dollar to “jackal” lenders eager to prey on the family.

Creditors see it differently. They say developers like the Candlers are among the more sophisticated borrowers, and they know what will happen if loans go bad. After all, it’s spelled out in painstaking detail in the loan documents.

But David Flint, an attorney for the Candlers, said the family is not unlike hundreds of other developers in Georgia who had projects run aground because of the financial storm.

“They’re just hoping the economy turns and that they can salvage some of their developments and have a platform to go forward,” Flint said. “This recession has been tough.”

5. Father and son vow to rebuild their crumbling real estate empire

“Asa is the type of person who will bounce back,” said Jake Duffy, a real estate agent who has known the family for more than a decade.

This storm, though, is by far the biggest Candler has ever faced. In what should be the twilight of his life, he’s hounded by upset lenders who want a piece of his evaporating fortune.

Public documents don’t spell out exactly how much money Asa V has, but a personal financial statement from September 2011 listed in a bank lawsuit suggests his situation is dire. It lists his assets at $2.2 million and a nearly equal amount of debt.

When he ambled into a Midtown office on June 8 for a testy hour-long deposition on about $7.2 million in bank loans, he was ready for a fight.

The deal in question played out like so many before them. He had used a loan from Columbus Bank & Trust to buy 13 acres along a busy road in Paulding County and developed a Best Buy. The bank balked when he wanted to develop a vacant 10-acre lot nearby into a JCPenney, so he turned to a smaller bank for the new loan.

Candler’s dreams of selling the property at a profit and then repaying the loan dried up during the downturn. By June he hadn’t made any payments on the loan in months, he had stopped paying taxes on the property and refused to do routine maintenance work on the grounds.

That loan eventually was snapped up by CertusBank, which sued Candler for the money.

In the deposition, he was asked whether he realized he still had a legal obligation to repay the bank regardless of his financial struggles.

“That’s correct,” Asa V shot back. “But the lender didn’t have to make the loan. They could’ve refused to make the loan.”

It’s hard to imagine that Candler’s blame-the-bank retort would have sat well with his great-grandfather, a man who started a bank and delighted in running it from his downtown Atlanta skyscraper. But the feistiness he displayed highlights a hard-earned truth: Don’t count the Candlers out.

Candlers of one generation or another have survived the boom-bust cycles of a century of Atlanta’s development.

At their suburban office in Sandy Springs, where Atlanta’s suburban growth essentially began, Asa V’s son Bill can’t help but invoke the image of Atlanta’s famous crest, a reminder of the region’s ability to remake itself in hard times.

“We can survive. We’re working on a reemergence. We’re like the phoenix. We’ll reemerge,” said Bill.

“It’s just what we do.”

Asa V insisted that he’ll be part of the resurrection.

“I don’t plan to retire,” he said. “As long as the kids will let me hang around, I’ll be here.”

How we got the story

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution goes beyond data to tell personal stories behind the region’s economic woes. When we learned of a series of lawsuits against Coca-Cola heir Asa Candler V and his sons and companies, AJC reporters reached out to the Candlers and many of the family’s friends and business associates. The journalists also did research on the family, and reviewed hundreds of pages of court filings and real estate records to gain a fuller picture.

Coming next week: A maverick Georgia farmer re-imagines our food.Coming next week: A maverick Georgia farmer re-imagines our food.


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