Jim Berry was one of Chattanooga's entrepreneurial success stories, former Mayor Ron Littlefield said Tuesday.
In a city intently trying to attract new people with novel business ideas, Berry built Republic Parking System from scratch into a far-flung venture generating $360 million a year in revenues and employing 2,600 people worldwide.
"He was one of those rare individuals who created something you could see in other cities," Littlefield said. "I always liked to tell mayors and other city leaders when I visited that Republic Parking System was a Chattanooga company."
Berry, 82, died Tuesday morning at his Georgetown, Tenn., residence.
Much of Republic's business focuses on airport parking, a sector on which the company was built 47 years ago with a three-person staff sporting the name Air Terminal Parking.
From first-year sales of $50,000, the company has since become one of the largest privately held parking entities in the United States, handling airports from Alaska to Panama.
Berry's company has managed the Chattanooga Airport's parking concession for years, and longtime Airport Authority Chairman Dan Jacobson called Berry "a straight shooter."
"He was a man of his word," Jacobson said. "If he told you something he'd do it. You could take his word to the bank."
Even into his 80s, Berry maintained the chairman and chief executive roles at Republic. He also was a member of the Tennessee Aeronautics Commission, which oversees the state's airport system.
In a 2011 interview with Chatter magazine, Berry said he got his start in the parking business after moving to Memphis to attend business school. Looking for a job, he was hired by Allright Parking Co. to park cars.
His boss told him to go into parking full time as skilled, ambitious workers were uncommon in the industry then.
"So I said I'd try it," Berry said in the interview. "If it didn't work out, I could always go back to school."
Over a decade, Berry worked himself up to Allright's Southeast regional manager, and he became a vice president in 1962 when the company went public. But, Berry said, he wearied of working for a public company, and he launched his business in 1966.
"I grew up during the Depression," he said. "We simply worked hard for the things we needed."
Company officials Tuesday declined to immediately comment about future plans for Berry's businesses.
In addition to Republic, which has about 150 employees in the city, Berry had sizable real estate holdings in Chattanooga, including the city's tallest downtown structure, Republic Centre, at 21 stories, where the parking company is headquartered.
Additionally, Berry firm JBC Inc. bought the 17-story tower next door on Chestnut Street for $4 million a few years ago. Berry's company invested about $20 million into that structure, wooed one of Chattanooga's biggest law firms, Chambliss, as a tenant and renamed it Liberty Tower.
Berry also managed his and other real estate holdings through another company, Berry & Hunt.
Bill Sudderth, a Chattanooga developer who for many years headed what's today known as the nonprofit downtown development group The River City Co., said Berry built his business empire "the right way" and in "a first-class manner."
Sudderth said Berry, a Mississippi native, was interested in downtown.
"He was always involved with River City and one of the key people who made Chattanooga's downtown what it is today," he said. "He'll be sorely missed."
Kim White, who now heads River City, said Berry's confidence in downtown led others to hold that belief, too.
"We don't have a lot of people like him," she said, adding that Berry was a big supporter of the Tennessee Aquarium and other entities.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.