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Like Fathers, Like Sons

Three generations of Portmans share one philosophy—in business and in life, family matters.

John Portman IV, Jack Portman and John C. Portman Jr. stand in front of the latter’s sculpture in the foyer of the SunTrust Plaza at Peachtree Center.

Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund opened only a few years ago.

The Zhe Jiang Fortune Finance Center in Hangzhou, China, was designed by John Portman & Associates. 

John C. Portman Jr. is nothing you might expect. The 88-year-old patriarch of the Portman clan defies all octogenarian stereotypes: chatting up his iPhone, rocking a Sid Mashburn suit, still working six days a week. The chairman of global real estate powerhouse Portman Holdings exudes the clout that comes with that title, but he’s also insightful—and humble. “I don’t know why I do it or where it comes from,” he says, hands held out quizzically. “I just do it.”

About his tremendous aptitude—cultivated early (he attended Atlanta public schools; then, the U.S. Naval Academy and the Georgia Institute of Technology)—he says, “You can’t teach somebody to have talent. It doesn’t work like that.”

Most Atlantans know Portman from the downtown street named in his honor, and his iconic structures (AmericasMart, The Westin Peachtree Plaza, Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Hyatt Regency Atlanta, the SunTrust Plaza). But, these days, when the great-grandfather isn’t building a new project in Shanghai or vying for a billion-dollar redevelopment project in Miami, he’s making art.

“When you look at a painting or a sculpture, hopefully you feel something, because art is really one spirit talking to another,” explains Portman, who, rather than “intellectualize” the meaning behind his pieces, appreciates the process. “I don’t worry about what anyone thinks about my art; that’s not where I am. I’m trying to really go deep into [myself].” It’s paying off, as his works enjoyed a retrospective at the High between 2009 and 2010, and his sculptures and paintings still dot many of his Atlanta buildings (though he’s completed works worldwide).

Following his own path is a trait he’s passed down to his children (five sons, one daughter). “I have so many sons,” says the proud father, who has been married for 65 years. “Everybody is different, and they’re all crazy!… I hope you know I have a good sense of humor, too.” Portman insists he never pressured his kids into the family business. “I tried to help them find the thing that is uniquely them,” he allows. “If you can identify that, nurture it and let it blossom, then that is where happiness is.” What the Portman progeny did pick up from their father were qualities like character, integrity and authenticity (“I can’t stand phonies,” he grumbles. “I can spot them in a minute.”). Still, only the patriarch’s second-oldest son, Jack, an architect, inherited his love of drawing, architecture and a human approach to the profession.

“Everything we do should relate to people first,” says the elder Portman about his architecture and global business projects. “We should not have things changing us so much, as using these things to develop ourselves.”

Having taken up the family mantle, the aforementioned Jack Portman, CEO of John Portman & Associates and vice chairman of Portman Holdings, may have followed in his father’s footsteps (“It seems that way, doesn’t it? In terms of architecture, that’s true,” he says.), but is very much his own man. He has no clear recollection of when his interest in architecture became a professional pursuit, but has always maintained an interest in the subject. “I was constantly sketching and doodling as a kid,” he recalls.

Fortunately for Jack, his father allowed him to travel somewhere different every summer during college, expanding his horizons. “By the time I graduated, I had been all over the world—from South America to Asia to the Middle East,” he says, “so that gave me a good background of the world and inspired my interest to be more involved in taking the business more global.”

It was Jack who wanted to live in Hong Kong, and when China opened trade in 1979, Portman Holdings was the country’s first foreign developer. “We were there within three weeks after it opened,” he remembers. “I took a trip and went all throughout Asia, and through that [visit], we created enough business that we could establish an office in Hong Kong.” The company soon developed and designed Regent Singapore (later the Shanghai Centre and The Portman Ritz-Carlton, Shanghai, the only co-branded Ritz in the world).

Par for the course is Jack’s schedule—he’s gone half the year visiting the company’s offices in Seoul, Shanghai and Bombay, as “most of my life, I’ve been focused abroad,” he concedes. “I speak Chinese, but I speak it better than I hear it. In 1993, I took five months and lived in Taiwan and went to Chinese language school full time. It comes in handy. I can’t conduct business [in Chinese], but I can create friends. I can create relationships with people.”

These relationships have paid off exponentially. Currently, the company has projects in Shanghai, Beijing, Qingdao, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Shenzhen and other cities throughout China. Most are architectural, which Jack works on during the early schematic phases of their design, but it’s his own son, John, who helps fund the deals. “John is just smart in anything,” he says. “He’s very rational, and he’s got very good people skills, so he’s the absolute perfect person with the right kind of abilities and credentials to be in the position he’s in now.”

Like his father, Jack attended Georgia Tech to receive his master’s, but, like his son, he graduated from The Lovett School and did his undergrad studies at Harvard University. But top education isn’t the only thing the trio has in common.

“We are all passionate about what we do,” Jack says. “It’s tremendous fun. I think we each have a great sense of accomplishment, having a chance to build and create something in all these various places, creating jobs, creating opportunity and improving the way the physical environment of these cities work.”

John Portman IV, the 34-year-old son of Jack Portman, grandson of John C. Portman Jr., and VP of capital markets for Portman Holdings is, well, holding his own. Any question of corporate nepotism is immediately cast off within minutes of meeting the fiercely intellectual investment guru.

An Atlanta native and Harvard University alum (he also studied Indian culture at an immersion school in London), John received his MBA in finance from Emory and moved to Bombay to work on a massive airline merger. “I really cut my teeth out in the world and learned so much about the business before coming back to Atlanta and this company,” he says.

Hierarchically, John reports directly to Ambrish Baisiwala, CEO of Portman Holdings. “He’s like a mentor to me, and he’s the only nonfamily CEO of the company we’ve had, so that shows a huge level of trust.” In turn, Baisiwala reports to John’s father, Jack; above Jack is the elder Portman. “We can call him ‘Pa’ at the beach or at home, but at work, we call him ‘the chairman,’” relays his grandfather’s namesake, with his signature charm. “And I call my dad ‘Jack’ while at work. That’s just how it is.”

To date, John is the only grandchild that has gone into the family business. As part of his job, he’s responsible for capital raising, structuring and investments globally, but also works on underwriting and finance, essentially sourcing all funds. “We always like to invest in our own projects, but we also bring in investments from entities such as state pension funds, Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds, as well as high net worth families and individuals like the Rockefellers,” explains John, who, along with his colleagues, helps establish, maintain and grow these relationships.

One of the projects John is most proud of right now is in Florida—the Miami Convention Center District Redevelopment Project. “It’s a very sexy project,” he promises. True to form, the entire capital team raised more than $1 billion to fund the project, complete with retail and residential components, plus a Cirque du Soleil theater, across many city blocks. Enthralled with the prospect of winning the development, the entire company will know within the month if they’ve beat out the competition.

He is also a married father of two who appreciates his family’s influence outside of the office. “You’d be laughing at the dinner table, and, when someone would bring up business, you could feel the air shift in the room. In a good way,” remembers John about his early days. “I found that exposure to be helpful because I picked up on things that I had yet to put together, and it’s not until I went out and got my own education and my own experiences that I was like, that’s what they were talking about!”

Adopting the family’s penchant for keeping personal and professional matters private, John prefers to let the work speak for itself. “It’s a great way to be,” he assures. “And I feel like the older I get, the more I can appreciate [the family legacy], and the more it humbles me.”