Two decades ago, A.D. Frazier became a familiar figure to many Atlantans as chief operating officer for the Olympic Games here. As the No. 2 executive for the mammoth undertaking, Frazier worked closely with Olympics CEO Billy Payne to piece together the thousands of moving parts for the 1996 Games.
Frazier said he knew nothing about the Olympics before getting tapped by Payne. What he did know was how to assemble effective teams. His breadth of experiences, especially being tapped twice by President Jimmy Carter to handle important projects, helped prepare him for the Games’ challenges.
Frazier, who holds a bachelor’s and a law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill, has been a banking and investment firm executive, as well as head of the Chicago Stock Exchange. At 68 and with no desire to retire, he’s currently president of an Atlanta private equity firm that’s unlike many of its counterparts. Georgia Oak Partners is not looking to turn around troubled local firms. On the contrary, it’s focusing on investing in successful ones here. Frazier talks about his latest venture, as well as what he learned growing up in North Carolina, at the White House and during the Games.
Q: Would you please discuss how your early life shaped who you are?
A: I was always the new kid on the block because my dad was a minister and we moved around. You had to earn your wings every day and prove yourself every time you went to a new location. We moved four times before I finished high school in Lumberton, North Carolina.
That experience teaches you to reach out to people because you have to.
I was in high school in 1960 when there was a civil rights sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. The civil rights movement was very much a part of my growing life. My father believed the races should be equal, and there were a lot of people at that time who didn’t.
I worked in a tobacco warehouse and had to clean three sets of restrooms — one for whites, one for blacks and one for American Indians. It was a tense, tense period and very real to me.
I think the civil rights movement stayed with me longer than any other set of influences. We’ve come a long way in my lifetime.
Q: A week ago, President Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term. You had an experience 36 years ago, when you were called on to turn around the finances of President Carter’s inauguration. Would you please discuss?
A: The inauguration was in trouble. I was told, “We’re afraid we’re going to spend more than we take in.” President Carter said that no ticket could cost more than $25.
I went up there and kicked the tires and said we’re not going to make it.
Now, you can either raise the bridge or lower the river with these things. Either you cut the spending or raise the revenue.
I doubled the capacity of all the venues. I oversold every venue. People were crowded in and some people never got in. But it turned out we made $1 million.
Within a month of the inauguration, President Carter called me to come see him. He told me he wanted me to handle the reorganization of the executive office of the president and the White House staff. He said, “We promised to cut 30 percent and someone’s got to do it.”
I put together a team. The issue was how to organize complex issues with decisions coming so fast and the world looking over your shoulder.
I learned that the more complex an issue, the more you have to let others participate and help make the decision. You don’t have the time to get to know as many issues as you’d like to know. You’re going to have to trust somebody.
Q: How did that experience help you run the Atlanta Olympics?
A: I was recruited here in 1991 to run the Olympics. I didn’t know Billy Payne and I didn’t know anything about the Olympics, either. But if you stop learning, you’re dead.
There were about 30 people on the payroll at that point. We ended up growing that organization to 90,000, including volunteers and contractors. It was like putting together and taking apart a Fortune 500 company in six years without a bankruptcy proceeding.
The experience in the White House was an aha moment for me. You have to bring in some smart people, delegate and then find ways of keeping up to speed. You have to enable others who are bright to use their heads. In challenging situations, I like to see people take initiative.
Of course, everybody’s brother wants to work on the Olympics. So what we were able to do was to winnow out all the pretenders and get some folks in here who had done it before. Previous experience is key.
Q: What did you learn from Billy Payne?
A: I saw in Billy Payne a truly charismatic character. Billy Payne could inspire an old boot. He could inspire that plant over there. He was a visionary.
I worked with him almost every calendar day for six years. Through the Olympic bid, he was very much of a micro-manager. But at some point after that, he said, “I can’t represent this thing and get all the scut work done.”
That’s what I did. I couldn’t do what he did. I put together the team.
Frankly, if I hadn’t had the experience during Carter’s inauguration, I probably wouldn’t have done this. That was literally putting together a pick-up squad for a two-month effort that had to go off right and make some money. There was high visibility and high intensity.
It was the same thing with the Olympics. The Opening Ceremony was going to happen. We had to get there. You just gotta keep pushing. You just gotta keep pushing.
Q: You believe in investing in people who keep pushing until they’re successful. You’re employing that idea in your current business venture. Would you please discuss?
A: It undergirds our investment thesis here. Our approach is to bring financial capital and intellectual capital to growing businesses. This is not a turnaround. We don’t destroy jobs, we grow jobs.
We’d like the CEO to stay in the companies that we want to invest in. We will sort in favor of organizations where the leadership is good, where they have a passion for the business and where they’re trying to grow the business and just need financing.
It’s clear that businesses in Georgia need money to grow. In manufacturing and logistics, for example, there are tons of jobs and growth coming. We can make a difference. These are relatively smaller transactions — cash investments of about $2 million to $10 million.
We’re looking, in some cases, for generational transfers, where the baby boomer is going to get out and junior is going to come along. They may need a cash infusion and some guidance.
We’re interested in companies with a solid track record and cash flow — not start-ups. I like good, bright kids with MBAs. But if you’ve really had experience in the light manufacturing business or you know something about logistics, that’s a lot more important.
Each week, Sunday Business Editor Henry Unger has a candid conversation, called “5 Questions for the Boss,” with a top executive in Georgia. Some remarks are edited for length and style.