Making Ideas Reality
From real estate to fund raising to governing Grady, Tom Bell finds his niche in Atlanta
Tom Bell, CEO of Cousins Properties Inc., has a theory about why busy people seem to get more done.
“I think it has to do with a person’s demeanor and skill set,” he says. “The more you do and the more relationships you make, the better you are at getting things done, and because you’re busy you don’t waste time. You probably don’t like waiting, so you’ll push to get things finished.”
Bell is describing himself. A relative newcomer, he moved to Atlanta in January 2002 after his friend and golf buddy Tom Cousins asked if he’d consider serving as Cousins Properties’ vice chairman of the board and chairman of the executive committee.
The following year, Bell was elected president and CEO by the company’s board of directors. He took over as chairman of the board in December 2006 upon Cousins’ retirement. In doing so, Bell added another interesting chapter to his remarkable career.
Raised in Memphis, Tenn., Bell began his education at the University of Tennessee and finished at New York University. “I got involved in politics early on working for senators Howard Baker and William Brock,” he says. Baker and Brock were Republicans from Tennessee; Bell was Brock’s chief of staff from 1973-1976.
He held leadership positions in both the private and public sectors, with organizations as diverse as Gulfstream Aerospace Corporation, Ball Corpor-ation, the Hudson Institute and the Center for Naval Analysis. He served in the Reagan Administration, chairing the Committee on the Next Agenda, prioritizing issues for Reagan’s second term.
In 1991, Bell began a 10-year stint with Young and Rubicam, a worldwide commercial communications firm, which is where he was when Cousins made him an offer he didn’t want to refuse. [Editor’s note: Tom Cousins has a financial interest in Georgia Trend.]
“The real estate business is very creative,” Bell says, “and Cousins is really a development company. We start with an idea, purchase 10 acres of land at Piedmont and Peachtree Roads, and a couple of years later there’s a beautiful office building, restaurants going in, and condos being built. You see your ideation become a reality.”
The 10 acres of land Bell refers to is Terminus, a $600 million mixed-use project being developed by Cousins in the heart of Buckhead. The first phase, Terminus 100, which includes 584,000 square feet of office space and more than 60,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space, opened in early April.
The variety of development – industrial, retail, commercial and residential – keeps things interesting; and Bell especially appreciates the relationship-driven nature of the business. “I found that real estate people are interesting and naturally optimistic,” he says. “They build an empty building and expect to fill it. I’ve always believed in setting goals. When I see something that needs doing, I’ll step out and try to help.”
Which is what Bell and his friends Pete Correll, former CEO of Georgia-Pacific, and Michael B. Russell, CEO of H.J. Russell & Company, did last spring when asked to be part of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce’s Greater Grady Task Force, a 17-member committee studying Grady Health System’s finances, structures and op-erations, and then making recom-mendations to the Fulton-DeKalb Hospital Authority.
A significant, though not unexpected, recommendation made in June was that the governance structure be changed. “We believe a broader based board, one that isn’t controlled from political entities, is the best way to govern Grady,” says Bell, who is on record as saying he is willing to serve on a nonprofit board if asked.
“One result is that [the task force] has gotten the community focused on the Grady issue. People didn’t understand how important Grady was to the overall healthcare scheme.”
Bell’s fund-raising abilities are already being tapped, as chairman of the chamber’s 2008-12 Forward Atlanta campaign, a drive to raise $25 million for the organization.
And he is fund raising on behalf of his longtime friend, Fred D. Thompson, former Republican senator from Tennessee and a 2008 presidential candidate. “When Fred told me he was forming an exploratory committee, I told him I’d be glad to help in any way,” says Bell, who hosted a profitable fund raiser for Thompson in July.