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Tom Cousins – UGA Grad, Businessman and Baller Extraordinaire

April 25, 2008

Today at 10:10 marked the last ever ILAD class session that I will ever take…at least I think so. We’ll have to see about that one. But we hosted Tom Cousins, the Chairman Emeritus and Founder of Cousins Properties, Inc., probably the largest real estate developer in the Atlanta area and in a big part of the Southeast.

Now, he spoke for about 30 minutes at the Law School and took 20 minutes of Q & A, but I’ll just list a few of the highlights and standout quotes from his talk.

  1. ON RELATIONSHIPS: “One day you will be thankful for that, if nothing else.” He said this was the primary benefit he received from his days at UGA. In talking about his experiences with WWII veterans, he said they taught him “how to drink, party, play poker and hitchhike.” And these relationships he cultivated with the vets are what he remembers fondly.
  2. ON FORMER BUSINESS LAW PROFESSOR A. ALDO CHARLES: “If you don’t wanna get ‘did,’ don’t go amongst the doers.” I’m not totally positive what this means, but I believe it probably ties in with the next point somehow…
  3. ON INTEGRITY: Question he always receives from students: “Don’t you always have to step on people to succeed?” Answer he always gives: “I cannot tell you how contrary that is to fact. And I hope you will listen to what I’m saying.” CPI committed itself in the beginning to a culture of integrity, of keeping both written and unwritten commitments, or not bragging but following through. And when you walk into the CPI offices “you can feel it,” the notion that everyone is working together to do the right thing.
  4. ON REPUTATION: The ups and downs of the market, the tough times for your company, “that’s where your reputation really pays off.” That’s wear you build your reputation by not selling yourself out, by not cutting the corners and by soldiering on in spite of it all.”If there’s confidence in you then you’ll be needed at these times…and outstanding people will be drawn to you.” Good stuff.
  5. ON INTEGRITY (AGAIN): Never say “It would have been legal. Don’t just do the legal thing, do the right thing. Don’t fudge on the expense account even if everybody does it. Just be different.” This last part he says is the key to both financial and life success.
  6. ON CHARACTER: “It will eventually show up, folks!” His example involved an employee he had hired to be the next CEO of CPI. Tom took him to play golf at Augusta National, and he noticed an oddity about the other man’s game. When the man would spot his ball, he would place the marker in front; then when he went to put his ball back, he would place the ball in front of the marker. He was fired at the end of the trip simply because this small act showed his true character. Update: The fired man has since been the CEO of a large bank in Texas which is bankrupt. He is also now divorced because he was “running around with his secretary.” Go figure.
  7. ON GIVING BACK: “Get involved in community service.” All of the employees of CPI had in internal drive that said they “ought to give back,” not they they had to or should, but that it was a natural thing. When combined with integrity, service is the key to guaranteed success, he said.

If you’ve ever been through Atlanta and noticed the East Lake district, the momentous revitalization is one of Cousins’ crowning achievements. The Atlanta police chief even said this once violent and desperate community is now statistically safer than even Buckhead. Here’s a link to a CNBC video about the development. Check it out, it’s amazing.

There’s so much more I could write, but I don’t want to make this exorbitantly long right now. So I’ll leave you with a quote and a stamp that Cousins put on the UGA campus.

“Whatever you do, do something you enjoy. Because once a day’s gone, it’s gone for good.”

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