Viewpoint: Jack Portman was Atlanta’s own modern day explorer

September 18,2020

A.J. Robinson, Atlanta Business Chronicle

“Nee-Hao, Lao Pengyou.”

That’s how we greeted each other. It means, “Hello, or how are you, old friend” in Chinese.

Jack Portman and I shared unique career experiences and a friendship that truly was worthy of an “old friend” greeting. The term “Lao Pengyou” is not only used to describe normal relationships among the masses in China but recognizes the importance of those who have earned that title by helping China in some significant way. It’s a term of endearment and status reserved for those who earned the reputation of being loyal friends of China. Names like Edgar Snow, whose book Red Star Over China, is a must read for those seeking to understand Mao’s rise to power, or Henry Kissinger who laid the groundwork for modernization of US/China relations. And Jack Portman, who passed away a few weeks ago. After over 40 years of work in China and elsewhere, he truly was a “Lao Pengyou” of mine, of Atlanta, and of China.

I met Jack in Hong Kong in the winter of 1980. I had completed a rare assignment assisting in the creation of a business school in Dalian, China. Our mission was to teach Chinese officials “western business thought”. (At that time, the word “capitalism” could not be used to describe our work). The school was part of the foundation of a new U.S./China relationship, initiated by then President Carter and Chinese leaders in 1979 when the doors opened to China. Jack had just set up a real estate development and architecture office in Hong Kong and was moving his young family there as well. He thought I knew a lot about China, which compared to most at the time, I did. And I thought he was such an ambitious globalist. An Atlantan trying to make his mark on the world by introducing American architectural ingenuity and creativity to the countries of the Far East. We were two youngsters at the time. One from the hills of Tennessee who had never been west of the Mississippi River, and the other a former Lovett High School star quarterback, and talented architect. Both dreaming about the potential of the Middle Kingdom. What ensued was an almost 10-year journey to conceptualize, design, develop, construct, and then operate Shanghai Centre, perhaps the most significant western real estate development in Shanghai since before 1949.

The Centre was a $200 million investment, all originating from foreign interests. It encompassed a Portman Ritz Carlton hotel, over 500 units of rental housing, office space, exhibition center, retail, parking and a 1,000-seat theatre. There were many hurdles to overcome including language challenges, cultural differences, partnership issues, technology gaps, and political winds like June 4th, 1989, when Tiananmen Square erupted, and many were forced to flee the country. Through it all, with passion and determination, Jack remained dedicated to the project and its future. He studied the language and customs and immersed himself in everything Chinese. He had a magnificent sense of humor, and an uncanny ability to develop relationships despite vast cultural differences. Ironically this year, Shanghai Centre returned to Chinese ownership after our 30-year foreign operating period ended. We talked a lot in the 80's about being alive to see that day, never thinking that we would really live to witness it. It’s almost like Jack could leave this world behind now that the Centre was under China’s ownership.

Back in 2018, upon John Portman Jr.’s passing, I wrote of why John mattered to the City of Atlanta. He left us a laboratory of creative space that best reflects the spirit of our city in the latter half of the 20th century and inspired us to become a city that incubates new ideas and lifts-up those who are committed to its future. Jack built on that legacy by showing how Atlanta can share with the world what is our own, a model of innovation and entrepreneurship represented by a family business that is now known around the world. Jack was the original Atlanta explorer and diplomat, a man constantly in motion striving to offer the best we had to offer to others beyond our borders. It has been said many times that the Portman name, is better known in China than here. Besides the Coca-Cola Company, what other Georgia company can claim that rarefied air?

Rest in Peace, Lao Pengyou.