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John Portman: The Chairman

John PortmanATLANTA - Of all the first-generation legends that built the trade show and market center infrastructure that has served the home furnishings industry over the past half century, only one remains.
     Trammel Crow, George Little, Joseph P. Kennedy, the families that built the High Point market: They are all gone.
     But John Portman, who created the Atlanta Market Center - indeed, arguably he created modern-day Atlanta too - is alive and well and comes to work most days at his glassed-in office atop what is now called AmericasMart.
     "I love it. This is where it all happens."
     Portman, still chairman and ceo of the market center that is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2011, was reflecting on that half-century and what it took to make AmericasMart the powerhouse it is today. His office is a reflection of the man himself: the artwork he created in a building he designed in a market center he invented in a city he helped to make one of the most important urban centers in the country.
     That original creation grew out of a long-since demolished downtown Atlanta parking garage that Portman leased and set up as an exhibition space for wholesale trade shows. When he went to a get a construction loan to build what would become the Merchandise Mart, he said the banker told him, "If you can lease this amount of space in a garage, you've really got something."
     Portman got the loan, but he already had something no other developer had: He was an architect by training and he knew how to design a building the trade needed. More importantly, he knew building a mart was not an isolated event.
     "We took a holistic approach," he recalled, one that led him to build hotels to serve market-goers. The first was of course the Hyatt Regency, which was the first major new hotel to use an open-atrium design, setting the template for a generation of hotels around the world.
     Portman said he also knew he had to get people to his mart and hotels and the answer was an airport. Not just any airport, but one that has grown into the major transportation hub for the southern half of the country.
     With all the pieces in place, the Atlanta Market Center became a key destination for the home furnishings industry and 15 years ago, it was rebranded AmericasMart to better reflect the fact that it was no longer just a regional center.
Portman - everyone in the organization calls him The Chairman - has turned over day-to-day management of the mart business to his son Jeff, but if his days are a little less busy than they used to be, his mind is no less sharp.
     He can recall conversations from a half-century ago and then quote the Federal Reserve chairman's latest statement on economic conditions.
     And those economic conditions, by the way, don't faze him all that much. "This is the worst home furnishings market I can remember. But it's like when you're stuck in traffic and wondering if you'll ever get out of it.
     "We will get out of it."

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