Some label him the father of modern big box retailing. Some know him as a calm voice of conservative political wisdom, but most Atlantans see him as the one individual who has changed the face of our city and its healthcare within his own lifetime.
Turning 89 last month, Bernie Marcus is no “spring chicken,” though he certainly acted like one at the Jewish Network Atlanta (JNA) dinner on June 18 at Taylor English Duma LLP.
Without a single prepared note, Marcus started on time and held nothing back. “I have nothing to lose [by being open and frank]. I’m not running for office. And I am here to hear from you. Let the questions roll.”
During the pre-function cocktail hour, young professionals oozed with adulation about the role Marcus is playing. “He is an icon and a huge role model for our clients, lawyers, and our children,” said Ilene Berman, vice chair at Taylor English. Emily Kapit, Refresh Your Step, added, “Look at his role in the eponymous MJCC [Marcus Jewish Community Center]. That is major.”
Venture capitalist Brian Rosenzweig said, “I admire him for being a staunch Republican and I like that he supports Jewish causes.” And Graham Levitas summed it up: “Bernie Marcus is a household name.”
Marcus was introduced by great nephew and JNA member Jason Smith, who recalled how the family would visit Manhattan and eschew sightseeing in favor of scouting inside Home Depot stores. Jason’s grandmother Bea Smith was Bernie’s older sister. “Bernie knew he had made it when he went to the Oval Office and President George W. Bush said, ‘I know you!’ first.”
Marcus shared that he was worried about the younger generation not valuing the history of Jewish people and actually turning against themselves.
“Plus 35 percent of college students think socialism is preferable to a capitalistic system. Realism is what will happen if everyone gets $15 per hour minimum wage; small businesses will close and there will be no jobs. We have to support deregulation. It’s nonpartisan. It’s real life…It’s a necessity to save jobs. Until Trump, small businesses were closing at alarming rates.”
During part of the evening he participated in a Q&A:
Audience member: How do you decide what charities to support?
Marcus: It’s not easy to give away money. We may get 50 proposals at a time that have to be whittled down to five. I remember how I made money working hard 80 hours a week. These charities have to show return on value, their plan and budget for our board to review. Sometimes I go against the board. (laughing) …they didn’t want to build the Aquarium, and look how that turned out!
Audience: Do you regret taking Home Depot public and losing control?
Marcus: Well, I didn’t like dealing with the a-holes on Wall Street; but we had like four stores, then four more. Then the rest is history.
Audience: Since we are young and working our businesses to the max, is it ok to take time out away from charitable programs?
Marcus: No! It is never ok to not concentrate on philanthropy. My mother had nothing and gave our ice cream money to buy trees in Israel. If you can’t give money, volunteer your time. Be a Big Brother or Big Sister.
There is nothing like saving a life. I get thankful letters every day from Grady stroke victims or Piedmont Hospital patients. It’s very heartwarming.
Audience: Will you reduce your big store ideals to trend with online shopping?
Marcus: We will not give up store space. People like to shop in the store to buy lumber for example…and walk the aisles for ideas. We will play both games…and invest billions to beat Amazon at its own game. Note that we used to open 100 stores a year and have only opened three this year.
Audience: You’re so vigorous at 89, how have you tapped the Fountain of Youth? What are your habits?
Marcus: I keep busy and think about tomorrow….not worrying about yesterday. I am planning two plus years ahead. I won’t live forever. But I don’t ruminate about mistakes.
Audience: So don’t we need to learn from our mistakes?
Marcus: Depressed people concentrate on mistakes. I’m happy that my successes outweigh errors. Sure, you should learn from mistakes. I think one of the worst is holding onto bad people too long by being emotionally involved. A bad CEO can ruin a business. Look at GE.
At Home Depot, we hired great workers…some may even have been so obnoxious that no one else would hire them. They were determined to get the job done.
Audience: What’s the takeaway?
Marcus: I was just speaking to Alan Dershowitz [Harvard lawyer, author, academic] who agreed that the Democratic party is turning against itself. We are frightened by so much anti-Israel, anti-Semitic sentiment. Look what’s happening in Germany, England, France…Jews have nowhere to go but Israel. You think Russia and Iran want to sustain Israel? We have to fight the fight!