Starting from humble beginnings in a Jewish family in Sunnyside, Queens, Arthur Blank, 78, co-founded Home Depot along with Bernie Marcus in 1978. He started his career as an accountant before moving into the home improvement business and launching Home Depot’s first two stores in Atlanta.
That then-humble chain has become a household name, and has made Blank very wealthy, now worth $6.1 billion. Aside from being the talk of Halloween season for its smash-hit 12-foot-tall skeleton decoration, the home improvement mainstay was also recently in the news for purchasing HD Supply Holdings, Inc. for about $8.7 billion.
Blank stepped down as co-chairman of the company in 2001 and has since purchased the Atlanta Falcons and Major League Soccer team Atlanta United FC. As an early signatory of the Giving Pledge (he signed in 2012), Blank and his family have also been active in philanthropy through the Arthur M. Blank Foundation, which works for “innovative solutions that enable young people, families and communities to achieve results beyond what seems possible today.” Through the foundation and his family’s personal giving, Blank has given away more $800 million.
He recently donated $200 million to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, which will be used to build the Arthur M. Blank Hospital. And a $20 million gift to the University of Texas at Austin will establish the Arthur M. Blank Center for Stuttering Education and Research in the Moody College of Communication.
“It’s in my family. My uncle has a stutter. My brother has a stutter. I have a stutter. This is passed on genetically,” Blank told me in a recent Zoom interview from his office.
A family affair
For Blank, the value of philanthropy was embedded from an early age. A Queens kid with roots in Sunnyside and Flushing, he lived in a single-bedroom apartment with his brother, his mother Molly and his father Max, a pharmacist who passed away when Blank was only a teenager. He recalls that Molly, who assumed leadership of the family business, was always involved in the community, improving the lives of others and trying to make sure that the playing field was level for everyone.
Fast-forward to 1990, and Home Depot had become the country’s largest home improvement retailer. At the height of his business success and starting to think about his next chapter, Blank had dinner with Rob Walton, Sam Walton’s oldest son, who explained to Blank that while the elder Walton left behind an incredible company and cared about making a difference, he never really got around to establishing a strong philanthropic presence. To that end, in 1995, Blank launched his family foundation and got his children involved so that they could understand the value of giving back.
“All the tables in all of our offices—and especially in philanthropy—are round. I don’t sit at the head of anything. I have one vote just like everyone else,” Blank says. All six of his children are involved with the charity, particularly his oldest three children. Daughter Dena Kimball is especially involved in the education space and has held leadership positions with Teach for America and Teach for All. She serves as executive director of the Kendeda Fund, the foundation of her mother, Arthur Blank’s former wife Diana Blank. And son Josh Blank is active in the arts and media worlds and serves as executive director of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.
“They understand our values and it’s a privilege to see them having grown up and carry on this work,” Blank says.
The personal motivations behind two big gifts
The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation’s gift to the University of Texas establishes the Arthur M. Blank Center for Stuttering Education and Research. The new center will house and expand several existing programs at UT under the leadership of Courtney Byrd, an expert on stuttering. Byrd founded and directs the Michael and Tami Lang Stuttering Institute, the Dr. Jennifer and Emanuel Bodner Developmental Stuttering Laboratory and the Dealey Family Foundation Stuttering Clinic located in the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas.
We often write that individual researchers or teams of researchers can put an institution on a donor’s radar, ultimately escalating to a major payoff. Blank’s big gift to the University of Texas follows this exact plot.
“I met with Dr. Byrd and was excited that she had a different approach to stuttering, which she applies to her camps,” Blank says, referring to Byrd’s intensive treatment program, Camp Dream. Speak. Live., an annual summer camp for children who stutter that focuses on communication effectiveness, self-advocacy, self-confidence, resilience and leadership skills. The funds will be used in part to bolster this camp.
Blank says that he was particularly attracted to Byrd’s holistic approach, which he says contrasts with programs that place emphasis on fluency training. Blank explains that Byrd and team “look at stuttering as something not to fix, but rather as an element of who they are,” adding that even prior to this large grant, she’s been working on an international stage.
Byrd’s approach to helping those who stutter also mirrors the empowering message Blank heard growing up: “We shouldn’t be defined by how we speak—it’s just how we speak. What we all say has importance and is of value. I heard this from my mother when I had a stutter that was much more pronounced.”
Blank mentioned President-elect Joe Biden as another positive example, and someone with whom he’s spoken, modeling the idea that those who live with the speech disorder do not have to be “fixed.”
The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation also recently made a $200 million gift to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) naming a new pediatric hospital that will be the fourth largest in the country when completed, according to Blank. His philanthropy has always focused significantly on youth. “Children represent one-third of our population and 100% of our future. My philosophy is to continue to invest in children.”
In Blank’s own Atlanta orbit, he says that all of his children have been treated through CHOA at some point. And his former wife Stephanie Blank served as chair of the board. “It’s an incredibly caring place and I’m happy to be involved,” Blank says. Past philanthropy with CHOA created the Stephanie V. Blank Center for Safe and Healthy Children, promoting the safety and well-being of children through community advocacy and the identification, assessment and prevention of child abuse.
A new book outlining a personal philosophy
In his new memoir “Good Company,” Blank argues that business “can serve the goals of both profitability and living with purpose.” Packed with business lessons, life lessons and personal stories, Blank focuses on six core values for success: Put people first, listen and respond, include everyone, innovate continuously, lead by example and give back to others. The book’s foreword is penned by President Jimmy Carter (Blank is a donor to the Carter Center), whose long and active life inspires Blank’s own.
“At 78, I’m trying to do some of the same things. For those of us who are blessed, we find our true blessing is giving back to others and helping make the world a better place,” he says.
Blank describes his mother as “an artist and social justice warrior” in his book, and throughout our conversation, Blank himself emphasized the importance of leveling the playing field for all. (Intriguingly, Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus has been an outspoken Trump supporter and donor. He, like Blank, is an active philanthropist.) All “Good Company” proceeds will go to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, in perpetuity, with an initial contribution of $300,000 to celebrate the memoir’s publication this fall.
As a testament to his mother’s lasting influence, the foundation’s Molly Blank Fund focuses on at-risk youth, arts and culture, and Jewish causes emphasizing social justice and interfaith coalitions. Outside of Georgia, the foundation also works in far-off Montana, where Blank owns several ranches. The foundation supports youth and adult development organizations like Outward Bound, and on a global level, has funded CARE’s Pennies to Power program, a microfinance initiative to establish member-funded village savings and loan associations (VSLAs). Grantmaking has also focused on military-in-transition support, helping to mitigate soaring suicide rates within this population.
“When needs match up with the family’s passions, we support them fully and try to be creative,” Blank says, excited to continue his work as a giver, but also confident that his philanthropic legacy is in good hands down the line. “When I’m not around, my kids will be ready to pick up the mantle of the foundation.”