2003 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Always do your best and try to leave the world a better place."
Born in Georgia in 1931, Thomas Cousins was the second of four children in his family. His father was a car salesman at that time and the family moved often through the Southeast as he changed jobs. Cousins' mother worked in a department store and later as an office manager for a doctor.
From the time he could walk, Cousins was given responsibilities around the house. By the time he was in third grade, he cut grass for his family as well as many neighbors. When he was older, he made deliveries for a drug store, worked as a soda jerk, and delivered newspapers. In high school, he worked as a lifeguard. "I never felt deprived in my childhood," he says. "Everyone was poor back then. I just felt lucky to be alive in a free country. I always felt I had opportunities before me and, thinking back on it, I'm sure all my jobs kept me out of trouble."
Even though he describes himself as a bit of a dreamer growing up, Cousins said he did not spend a lot of time contemplating his future-maybe because he thought his future was predetermined. His uncle, for whom he was named, was a doctor and Cousins remembers always being told he would grow up to be a doctor like his uncle.
Cousins was an able student and he graduated high school in 1948 at the age of 16. He enrolled in the University of Georgia to study pre-med. To help pay for school, Cousins worked at odd jobs in a warehouse and a service station. "Working was just something I had to do," he says. "Money was always a problem growing up and I decided early on that it was not going to be a problem for me or my future family. I knew even then that work makes you ready for life."
During his senior year, Cousins worked part time in a hospital and was allowed to watch a surgical procedure. It was a negative experience for him and he quickly switched his major to business administration. A member of the Blue Key Honor Society, he graduated in 1952 in the top 10 percent of his class. The Korean War was on and Cousins, who had participated in ROTC, joined the Air Force.
Cousins returned to Atlanta in 1954. He heard a rumor that Lloyds of London had predicted Atlanta would become the largest city in the world by the year 2000. If that were going to be the case, thought Cousins, there would be a great deal of real estate changing hands. He got interviews with the largest real estate companies in Atlanta and finally settled on Knox Homes. "It was the only job available that paid an advance against commission," he says. "I only had a few weeks worth of food at home and I needed a salary."
Knox Homes manufactured pre-fabricated houses that were sold to homebuilders. Cousins committed himself to learning the business and the market. Soon he was the company's top salesman. Three years later, Cousins invested $2,500 and co-founded his own development company, which quickly became the largest homebuilder and residential developer in Georgia. Cousins took his company public in 1962.
In 1965, Cousins began to diversify by getting into commercial development. The company's most notable Atlanta developments include One Ninety One Peachtree Tower, Bank of America Plaza, The Pinnacle, the Omni Sports Arena, and The Avenue East Cobb. The company continued to expand and is now into markets that include Washington, D. C., California, and Texas. In 1997, Cousins Properties was named "National Developer of the Year." Today, Cousins Properties Incorporated is one of the most prominent real estate investment trusts in the country.
Recently, Cousins retired as CEO of his firm so that he could devote more time to his three family foundations. Much of his philanthropy centers on revitalizing inner-city neighborhoods and funding educational scholarships for at-risk youth. One of his major successes is the redevelopment of The Villages of East Lake, which now includes 542 mixed income residences, a YMCA, and a golf course open to East Lake youth. The project also includes a charter school that is working to help its students become skilled learners. "I am committed to helping the inner city youth whose needs are so many," says Cousins. "I believe it is more blessed to give than to receive. Those who work hard and make money but don't give any of it away are missing out on real success in life. I worked hard throughout my life and now I'm trying to leave the world a better place."