This story was originally published in the August/September 2015 issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
“‘The answer to all unasked questions is NO’—that was something he said often,” says Steve Hunt of longtime mentor and business partner, the late Jim Berry.
A familiar story among hometown business people, Berry was founder of Republic Parking System, an international company he launched in the mid-60s to serve commercial airports. He was one of Chattanooga’s entrepreneurial success stories, whose venture eventually generated $360 million a year in revenues and employed 2,600 people worldwide. His real estate investments were insightful, too.
“He was deeply committed to making Republic Centre the finest class AA property in the area,” says the forty— year-old Hunt. Only 24 when he met Berry, and fresh out of the UT School of Business, Hunt worked for an Atlanta real estate firm as its Tennessee broker. He had successfully leased the James building and was learning how to manage other distressed and aging properties. There were plenty of them, too. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) had just moved out of several downtown buildings to consolidate in its new headquarters at 11th and Market, leaving the buildings empty and seemingly unworthy. At least one of those, eventually acquired by Berry, had been built for government use by Franklin Haney whose Spartan approach to architectural design didn’t win any awards.
When they first met, Hunt was asked to prepare a proposal for work in Chattanooga by his Atlanta firm, although the firm was never hired. They had “repackaged” the young agent’s work and presented it differently. On the suggestion of his father, Hunt spoke to Berry directly. After seeing the original handwritten presentation he insisted Hunt come to work for him the following Monday. Much later in 1999, the duo would form realty asset company, Berry & Hunt, which manages several properties in downtown. Ronnie Smith joined the firm in 19— as facilities manager.
A few years ago, Mr. Berry purchased a 17-story tower office building next door to Republic Centre. Also built by Haney—it was renovated, LEED certified and rebranded as Liberty Tower, opening in May 2013—a crowning achievement for him and an interesting project for the Berry & Hunt firm. Berry died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 82 in November 2013. LEED certification of the project was finalized in June, 2015.
Hunt has a stockpile of Jim Berry sayings to work from and he enjoys referring to them from time to time. But he cites a few key attributes that made their relationship so estimable. These included Berry’s habit of treating everyone equally, “from the person at the front desk to the person at the top,” his desire to help people get what they needed, his self-control and unconventional thinking. An incredibly intuitive and thorough thinker, he was skilled in the art of “strategic procrastination” says Hunt, and would delay responses until things developed in his favor.
The role of the mentor is highly valued in developing 21st century leaders and many organizations have mentoring programs built into their profiles. From the team-based Protégé Chattanooga, a collaboration between Young Professionals Association of Chattanooga (YPAC) and the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce to the nonprofit Chattanooga Woman’s Leadership Institute with its upcoming August lunch-time sessions on Women Mentoring Women—mentoring seems to be on everyone’s agenda.
The word mentor is rooted in Greek mythology. Mentor was a friend of Odysseus who placed him in charge of his son Telemachus upon leaving for the Trojan War. The first-recorded modern usage of the term can be traced to a 1699 book, Les Aventures de Télémaque, by the French writer, Francois Felon. In the book, the lead character is that of Mentor and the modern application of the term can be traced to this publication.