Chattanooga business magnate Emerson Russell got his start cleaning bricks for a penny apiece at the age of eight.
After years of business success, the 62-year-old now devotes more time to his rare car collection, including a 1967 GT-500 Shelby Cobra and a Ford Roadster imported from Africa, and spends time "plowing" at the golf course.
Mr. Russell's rise was no accident, said Charles B. Lebovitz, chairman of the board for CBL & Associates Properties.
"Emerson is one of the most entrepreneurial-minded executives that I've had the pleasure of doing business with over the years," Mr. Lebovitz said.
Mr. Russell's father, a Church of God minister, taught him to spend only as much as he could afford, a lesson he said he has found useful in overseeing his 5,000-employee facilities services empire that stretches from coast to coast.
"I had the right upbringing, but I'm also a firm believer that you can have opportunity, but if you don't use it right that opportunity could go away," Mr. Russell said. "The Lord God gave us talents, and we either sit on them or use them to our fullest ability."
Mr. Russell was blessed with plenty of ability, said Tom Edd Wilson, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.
"Emerson Russell is an astute businessman who grew a local enterprise into a company with national reach," Mr. Wilson said. "He's an outstanding example of the kind entrepreneurial spirit that has built the businesses that are the backbone of our local economy."
Mr. Russell's first chance to participate in the local economy was a job at Mosteller's Garage on Main Street sweeping floors for $6 per week. By age 12 he was running a wrecker truck, splitting his salary with his mother. Working his way up, learning every job he could, he saved enough money to open his own paint and body shop in 1966 at the age of 18.
"I was too young to own property so it was in my dad's name," Mr. Russell said. "He made me pay for everything, I wasn't allowed to go into debt."
In 1969, he joined the Chattanooga Police Department and became well versed with polygraph machines while still running his shop on the side, which he eventually sold in 1971.
After getting bored with only one job he decided to start a security company while still working with the police department.
Emerson Russell's career
Main Street Paint & Body Shop -- 1966 to 1971
Chattanooga Police Department -- 1969 to 1977
Russell Security -- 1975 to 1986,
Swan Services Inc. -- 1986 to 1991
ISS -- 1991 to 1993
ERMC -- 1998 to present
* Total number of developments: 5
* Office locations nationwide: 11
* Number of locations where ERMC provides services: More than 185
What services does ERMC provide?
* Mechanical maintenance
* Food sanitation
* Construction clean-up
* Concrete polishing
* CCTV monitoring & alarm services
* Airport facility asset services
"I started doing private security work and investigations on the side," he said.
He got his first contract to provide security guards for a warehouse when a number of polygraph tests he performed on a group of employees revealed evidence of theft, according to Mr. Russell. Stuck without guards for the warehouse, the owner, Bill Hudlow, "stayed after me for weeks to help him out." Mr. Russell accepted the job.
His second contract, in 1972, was with Northgate Mall and his third was with the precursor to CBL & Associates, Arlen Realty and Development Corp., headed by Mr. Lebovitz.
"Emerson approached us with the concept of providing security services at our properties," Mr. Lebovitz said. "From that idea, he has developed a major presence in the security industry, both locally and in many states."
Mr. Russell began offering janitorial services in 1980, started offering mechanical maintenance and landscaping in the mid 80s, and the rest is history.
Despite his reputation as a hands-on manager, he steadfastly refuses to take credit for the company's successful ventures.
"They're the ones who gave me the opportunity to be where we are today," he said of Bill Hudlow and Charles B. Lebovitz.
To illustrate his work ethic, he said he often tells a story to his employees about a preacher and his son:
"In the old-timey churches, the offering box was in the vestibule (entrance hall), and this preacher pulled a coin out and put a quarter into the offering box. He went up and preached a fiery sermon, came back, unlocked the box, and pulled just his own quarter out. The boy said, 'Daddy, if you put more in, you'll get more out,'"
Mr. Russell said the story illustrates his philosophy of putting every minute toward building up the company and serving customers, a practice he demands in employees and for which he rewards them.
Jim Sattler, CEO of EMJ Corp., said Mr. Russell's business practices reflect his character.
"Emerson has a real heart, and he has the utmost amount of character," Mr. Sattler said.
Mr. Russell sold the company for $58 million to Swan Services in 1986, restarted the company and sold it again in 1996, due to health issues, for stock in a new company, Mantech.
He later purchased Mantech back for $12 million, and has grown it into a $120 million company as of July 2010.
Mr. Russell makes no secret about what he believes is the key to his success.
"I tell my employees, it's the little things we do on a daily basis that help us stand out," he said. "If you're not willing to open up the door for someone when you're standing by the door, don't stand near the door."
Ultimately, he gives credit to his employees, many of whom are second-generation workers and 30-plus year veterans at his company, for keeping his firm on a successful trajectory.
"This company really doesn't need me. We have a lot of equipment and assets, but these are worth pennies without the employees," he said.
But the company philosophy of going the extra mile for customers and working hard goes back to his own childhood, he admits.
"I think it started as a child at home, doing what's right, and working at Mosteller's Garage" he said. "I learned that it wasn't play, it was work, and I was always looking for something extra to do."
He's still looking for "something extra," he said. With a $20 million acquisition on the horizon and a number of new neighborhoods under development, Mr. Russell is just getting started.