Power Players: A Collaborative Effort
Ten years ago Michael Hightower, now 53, was an energetic Fulton County commissioner known for his ability to work with people across the political spectrum to get things done. But in 2000, he was caught up in a corruption scandal that rocked Atlanta and Fulton County governments and might have defined him for the rest of his life had he allowed it.
Instead, after pleading guilty to taking almost $25,000 in bribes for helping a businessman win government contracts, he resigned his seat. His admitted lapse in judgment resulted in a conviction for public corruption, a sentence of six months of prison time and another six months of home confinement, 420 hours of community service and three years of supervised release.
Despite what most viewed as a crushing career setback, Hightower did what he had always done. He looked forward.
“Prior to leaving office I was thinking about the future, wondering what the next step, the next stage would be,” he says. City planning and community building had always been a passion, so Hightower set out to create a firm offering the combined talents of professionals in the fields of urban planning, engineering, program management and development.
In June 2001, with two minority partners from his “prior life,” Nancy Leathers, the former director of community planning for Fulton County, and Doug Craw-ford, the developer who helped revitalize the Cascade Road corridor, Hightower opened The Collaborative Firm for business.
Just three months later came the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. “We wondered if we could sustain our business,” says Hightower, “but everyone else was dealing with the same challenges.
“We’ve gone through one of the worst economic cycles since the Great Depression. Any firm, team or individual that can sustain and grow is a victory in and of itself.”
In fact, The Collaborative Firm has flourished while providing expertise to public and private clients. “We’ve been able, as a firm, to extend ourselves to almost every city and county in the metro region, into parts beyond – Atlanta, DeKalb, Clayton,” says Hightower.
“As far north as Bartow County and as far south as Meriwether County, down by the Kia plant. We’ve started looking at doing things in Alabama and the Carolinas.”
In 2003, the firm established the South Metro Development Outlook, the only forum of its kind south of Atlanta. The conference continues to grow, attracting more than 4,000 attendees in eight years.
By design, The Collab-orative Firm is based in the city of East Point, in the very region it seeks to revitalize.
Not coincidentally, Hightower is a son of the southside, having grown up in College Park. After graduating from high school, Hightower was off to Clark Atlanta University on a full academic scholarship. Though heavily involved in student government and myriad other activities, Hightower was a Music/ Fine Arts major, playing both string bass violin and French horn. He had a stint in the junior symphony in Atlanta.
Rather than make a career of music, Hightower joined the Affirmative Action Office of the Finan-cial Affairs Division at Georgia State University. Encouraged by friends in his community, he made his first foray into politics, running for and winning a seat on the College Park city council at the tender age of 22, where he served for seven years. In addition to his public service, High-tower was the director of community development at Barton Malow Company, providing design and construction services nationwide.
Hightower keeps his focus firmly forward and likes what he sees both personally and professionally. “I see us doubling in size in the next 18 to 24 months,” he says. “We’re going to be adding on architectural services along with engineering services. When you look around and see fellow firms, clients, the industry, going through some of the worst times we could imagine but every day we’re open for business, that’s motivation. The good part about my life, from age 22 until now, is that my ‘blip’ was so small it’s almost as if it didn’t happen. I’m just in the third quarter of my life; there’s more ahead.”