As he toured television stations and other media companies looking to acquire them, J. Mack Robinson often drifted away from a group of executives.
Robinson was later found chatting with an employee, “like they were his best friend, getting to know them and getting to know the company,” said friend and business partner Bob Prather.
It was that kind of situation where Robinson’s personality didn’t let on that he was a billionaire businessman and philanthropist.
A well-regarded Southern businessman known for his charm, Robinson died on Friday. He was 90.
Robinson’s business ventures included car sales, insurance, banking, fashion and media industries. Prather president and CEO of Heartland Media LLC and a former Gray television president. He and Robinson were partners when they acquired Gray, a former owner of the Gwinnett Daily Post.
“He was one of the most humble, kind and courteous men you’d ever meet,” Prather said. “He went out of his way to make people feel special, whether he was talking to a parking lot attendant or the CEO of the biggest bank.”
One example of that sentiment came at a National Association of Broadcasters event in Las Vegas when Robinson waited in line for a cab for 45 minutes, which caused him to miss his plane.
“We found out later that if you were late for a plane you could cut to the front of the line and say you had a plane to catch, but that’s not something he would do,” said Prather, who also serves as chairman of the board of Southern Community Newspapers, Inc., parent company of this newspaper. “He never tried to be above anyone.”
Robinson was born on May 7, 1923, in Atlanta. His father, James L. Robinson, was from Rockdale County and worked for a shoe manufacturing firm, while his mother was raised near Lithonia.
Robinson graduated from Boys High in 1941 and among his first jobs in the 1930s and 1940s were working as a copy carrier in the circulation department of the Atlanta Journal.
Robinson enrolled at the Evening School of Commerce, which is now Georgia State, in 1941, before he enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II.
In the 1950s, Robinson developed finance companies, the Dixie Finance Company and Gulf Finance Corporation, that had offices in more than 100 cities throughout the Southeast that were later sold to or merged with larger banks, such as the First National Bank of Atlanta and Wachovia Bank.
Robinson also privately underwrote the start-up of the French fashion house of Yves St. Laurent in the early 1960s.
Also in the 1960s and 1970s, Robinson acquired and developed more than 20 community banks. In 1974, he purchased the publicly held Atlantic American Corporation insurance conglomerate.
He also had investments in Rhodes Furniture Stores, Bull Run Corporation, one of Georgia’s largest sawmills, and companies in pest control and outdoor advertising.
While he expanded his business interests, Robinson was also modest.
“He carries an air of unforced gentility, formed first in a more provincial Atlanta, where he sold solid, everyday things like newspapers and used cars,” a 2011 profile in the Georgia State University magazine said. “His personality has remained unchanged as he built an empire in the intangibles people needed, like credit and insurance. Even as his business ramped up internationally, his gentle nature and easy Southern drawl did not waver.”
The magazine also noted that alumnus A.W. “Bill” Dahlberg, the former Southern Company CEO and president, said, “he admired Robinson for rising in an era where bootstraps outweighed a Master of Business Administration degree.”
Robinson and his family purchased Gray Television, Inc. in 1993.
“From the very beginning, Mack directed Gray’s management and station staff to focus on localism, news, and communities,” said Hilton Howell, Jr., Robinson’s son-in-law, who took over Gray when Robinson stepped down in 2008, at age 85, becoming chairman emeritus. “His local focus and the evolutionary spirit that he installed became the cornerstones of our company. Mack will be sorely missed by the countless people he touched and the countless communities that benefited from his commitment to local broadcast service.”
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. on Friday at Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to either Emory University’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center or the High Museum of Art.
Robinson, whose fortune was valued by Forbes at $1 billion, donated $10 million to Georgia State University in 1998, the largest cash gift in school history, which renamed its business school “The J. Mack Robinson School of Business.”
“J. Mack Robinson’s legacy can be seen across the business school and beyond,” said Georgia State President Mark Becker. “Georgia State is a better institution for its connection to J. Mack. His dedication to his family and philanthropy should serve as a model to us all. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Robinson family.”
Known for supporting many causes and several schools, Robinson and his wife, Nita, were named Philanthropists of the Year in 1994 by the Georgia Chapter of National Society of Fundraising Executives. He also supported a scholarship fund for many years at Oglethorpe University and the University of Virginia. In 1995, Mr. Robinson received the Hope Award from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
A science building at Westminster Schools is also named after Robinson.
Robinson is survived by Nita, his wife of 54 years, his daughters, Robin Robinson Howell of Atlanta, and Jill Robinson Forsey of San Diego, a brother, Marvin Lewis Robinson of Alpharetta, and nine grandchildren.