When it comes to giving back, few people have the unique combination of heart and resources as EY alum Arthur Blank. Atlanta Office Managing Partner Susan Bell recently had an opportunity to sit down with Blank at his Atlanta Falcons training facility in Flowery Branch, Georgia, and talk with him about his passion for winning and contributing — whether in business, on the gridiron or in the community.
A lesson in family values
When Arthur Blank was a young boy growing up in Queens, one day his family was robbed — at gunpoint. As one of the two thieves searched the Blanks’s one-bedroom apartment, the other sat with the anxious family in the living room, nervously gripping a gun in his lap. And, remembering it “like it was yesterday,” Blank recalls watching in horror as his mother berated the gunman about how what he was doing was wrong, and suggested that he should really “think about doing something better with the rest of his life.” While he can smile about it now, Blank says the incident reflects the deep set of values instilled in him by his family — the notion of trying to make a difference, of being “his brother’s keeper” — that have stuck with him and have guided his tremendously successful and illustrious career.
Before cofounding The Home Depot or becoming owner of the Atlanta Falcons or establishing the multi-million dollar Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, Arthur Blank joined Ernst & Young in 1963 as a staff accountant. He has fond memories of his time in the New York office, even though he admits the work could be tedious. “Back in those days we had to physically verify each and every securities receipt,” he says. Blank tells the story of sitting for days in a small room (with a chain-smoking coworker) doing nothing but counting security records. Still, says Blank, he considers the training and exposure to industry he received during his nearly five years at Ernst & Young as “tremendously helpful” in launching his career.
Winning on and off the field
It seems like whatever Blank has set out to do, he’s been, to put it mildly, remarkably successful. (He’s on the Forbes 2010 World’s Richest People list.) But whether it’s revolutionizing the home improvement business, or leading the Falcons to their first back-to-back winning seasons in the franchise’s 44-year history, Blank says it all boils down to one thing: values. “Our family of businesses has changed dramatically over the years, but our core values have not,” affirms Blank. Clearly stated among those values is this: “Give back to others.”
Believing that “behavior drives results,” Blank notes that giving back has been an integral part of his personal and business philosophy from the outset, and not simply the result of success. And he hopes to instill that value in the people with whom he works. “At Home Depot, we wanted our associates to see that they were in a position to truly serve others: maybe they were making a headache go away for the guy with the leaky faucet, or helping a young couple on a budget create their dream home.” That notion of setting the bar high in terms of giving back continues with the Falcons; for the past several years the team’s players have lead the NFL in the number of personal, charitable appearances. “The environment we’re trying to foster,” says Blank, “is that we want to be winners not just on the field, but off the field as well.”
Leveling the playing field
As one of the world’s leading philanthropists, Blank feels especially passionate about helping disadvantaged children. Sitting in his office overlooking the Falcon’s practice fields, Blank talks about the need to “level the playing field” for low-income youth and their families. Taking the football analogy a step further, he says, “We need to provide these children with a fair chance to compete and to appreciate the notion of teamwork.” Through his personal giving, as well as through his Family Foundation, Blank supports a number of initiatives that focus on the critical periods of development of young people and that foster “innovative ways to transform the conditions that prevent them from realizing their full potential.” While it may sound strange coming from one of the world’s wealthiest people, Blank truly believes that, both personally and as a society, “we have a responsibility to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots.”
A drive for success
Arthur Blank has come a long way from Queens and his early Ernst & Young auditing days. The Home Depot, from which Blank retired as cochairman in 2001, is now the world’s largest home improvement specialty retailer, with more than 2,200 stores in the US, Canada, Mexico and China. His Atlanta Falcons are looking for a “three-peat” winning season in 2010. And his foundation, combined with the personal giving of Blank and his wife, Stephanie, will have surpassed the US$250 million mark in charitable grants. But some things don’t change. Blank will continue to live by his strong family values. And Blank’s mother, Molly (who is 95 at the time of this writing), will likely still be offering her sage advice to those who will listen.