In business and charity, a no-nonsense outlook Home Depot founder says he tries to hire developmentally disabled

October 28, 1998|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Diana K. Sugg contributed to this article.

Bernard Marcus, who gave $45 million to the Kennedy Krieger Institute yesterday, appears to be taking the same sort of no-nonsense approach to helping people with disabilities that he took to the hardware business.

His story -- now legendary in business circles -- starts in New York's borough of Queens where he was born in 1930, the son of Russian immigrants, and takes him to California, where he was a top executive of the Handy Dan home improvement chain.

In 1978, he was fired after a conflict with his boss, moved to Atlanta and decided he could do it better, opening his first Home Depot in 1979.

Now he's got more than 600 stores and Handy Dan -- along with many other firms that tried to compete with Home Depot -- is out of business.

"He's a remarkable man, maybe the most remarkable I've ever met," said Peter Fanning. "He only knows one way to do things -- get it right the first time."

Fanning was a vice president at Kennedy Krieger when Marcus decided that Atlanta should have a similar facility and hired Fanning as its president in 1992.

"I think I came mainly because of Bernie," Fanning said yesterday. "He is just such a magnetic character with so much charm.

"He told me that this community had been good to him, had supported his stores, had made him a wealthy man and he wanted to give something back," Fanning said.

"And he loves kids," Fanning added. "The minute the children came out at Kennedy Krieger yesterday, I knew we had lost Bernie."

On his tour of Kennedy Krieger yesterday, Marcus made sure to say hello to every child, and listened carefully to explanations of class projects like the robotic arm students built out of Legos.

"Life has been very good for him," Fanning said. "He sees children who did not have the same break in the start of their lives that you or I did and are in need of a hand and he wants to give it to them."

Marcus told of watching a young man furiously cleaning the bathroom of one of his San Francisco stores, working so hard he didn't even realize the founder of Home Depot was watching. When Marcus complimented him on his handiwork, the man turned around and Marcus saw that he had Down syndrome.

Two years later, a woman ran up to Marcus after he gave a talk and threw her arms around him.

"You saved our lives," she cried. That cleaning man was her son, and the people at Home Depot had discovered his love of plants. Now, he's in the gardening department, bringing in customers who want to buy only from him.

Home Depot stores have made a point of hiring people with disabilities, Marcus said, describing them as some of the chain's best workers.

Just as with Home Depot, what Marcus started in Atlanta he now wants to build all over the country.

"He said it's not just the people in Atlanta who supported him, that he's got stores all over the country where people need these kinds of facilities like the people of Baltimore and Atlanta have access to," Fanning said.

The model Marcus wants to replicate is, in Fanning's words, "one-stop shopping" -- a place that can provide access to the myriad services that disabled children need. It again echoes the Home Depot approach, which provides home improvement shoppers virtually every product they could possibly want under one roof.

"I don't know if he consciously set out to emulate Home Depot in this," Fanning said. "But he approached it with the same type of mentality. The man is just a genius, but he seems to be able to put his genius ego aside and reach out."

Pub Date: 10/28/98

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