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The Power of Friendship

Cecil Phillips didn't go to the University of Georgia, but the Atlanta businessman knows a wise investment when he sees one.

By Kent Hannon

On July 16, at three in the afternoon, Atlanta businessman Cecil Phillips had an appointment on North Campus to discuss his $1 million gift to UGA that will create a chair in the name of his close friend and mentor, former Georgia governor George Busbee (BBA ’49, LLB ’52).

“As we get older, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to impact our lives in a completely transforming way—but that’s what George Busbee did for me,” said Phillips, who was a globe-trotting legal expert and special assistant to Busbee when the governor opened an economic gateway to the Far East during his second term from 1979-83. “I was at his side in Tokyo with the chairman of Nissan and in Beijing when he met with Deng Xiaoping at the Great Hall of the People. These trips, which were designed to attract foreign capital, convinced me there was something besides law that I was good at. And I have George Busbee to thank. He changed my life!”

Phillips acquired so much business-related acumen during his four-year stint with Busbee that he left the Atlanta law firm of Alston & Bird, where he had made partner, to go into real estate and corporate finance. Today, as CEO of Place Properties, Phillips builds large, privately funded apartment buildings designed for college students. Calling his innovative complexes “the future of student living,” Phillips’ company currently serves 18 college communities, including seven in Georgia.

“The question was, how should I express my thanks to Gov. Busbee?” said Phillips, whose North Campus interview took place just a stone’s throw from Candler Hall, where the Busbee Chair will be located in UGA’s School of Public and International Affairs. “I was born in Fayette, Missouri. I’m the product of public school teachers who taught me to love literature and history and to speak something other than rural English. But the bittersweet part is that they all passed away—Miss Murphy from sixth grade and Miss Kappler from eighth—before I had a chance to say thank you.”

Searching for a way to pay tribute to Busbee, Phillips remembered a three-hour dinner conversation that he and the governor had with Fred Davison at the UGA president’s home back in 1979. The discussion focused on the role education would play in creating a modern workforce for the influx of foreign capital and business headed Georgia’s way.

“Remembering that evening . . . it hit me!” said Phillips. “I wanted to create a chair at UGA in Gov. Busbee’s name.”

Ironically—and tragically—at almost the precise moment Phillips was explaining the genesis of the Busbee Chair, the former governor was suffering a fatal heart attack in Savannah.

“He was coming home from a fishing holiday and he was complaining of chest pains when he landed at the Savannah Airport,” Phillips would say a few days later. “He was such a vibrant person, someone who had the ability to look over the horizon, a good and decent man whom people trusted.”

Phillips and Busbee’s former chief of staff, Norman Underwood (ABJ ’64, LLB ’66), were asked to deliver eulogies. Speaking to a crowd of 900 at the Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta, Phillips said that Busbee’s international business efforts redefined what it means to be a successful governor in Georgia—a remarkable achievement given Busbee’s humble beginnings in south-central Georgia.

“Think about it,” said Phillips. “From son of a mule trader to governor of Georgia in one lifetime.”

Cecil Phillips is a UGA Foundation trustee. His daughter Lydia is a rising junior at UGA. And he is a fountain of information about higher education in general and, due to his tenure as a trustee, about UGA.

“In 1979, when Busbee and Davison were discussing the role education would play in Georgia’s future,” said Phillips, “who could have predicted that the University of Georgia would one day have a Rhodes, Marshall, Goldwater, and Truman Scholar all in the same year? When that happened, only four schools in the country had accomplished it—and the other three were Harvard, Yale, and Brown. That’s distinguished company. And now we have a MacArthur 'genius' fellow in the history department. Go figure!”

While you’re at it, go figure this:

Cecil Phillips, a million-dollar donor and unabashed UGA cheerleader, didn’t go to school here. His bachelor’s degree in history is from Missouri. His law degree is from Michigan. And yet, the only gift of any consequence that he has made to a university has gone to his adopted alma mater in Athens.

“I had no connection to the University, other than my daughter, and Gov. Busbee never made UGA one of his pet projects,” said Phillips. “I don’t have a high profile in the giving community and I’m younger than most people who give significant amounts of money away. Bottom line: I wasn’t part of the normal calculus that development officers look to. But UGA is going to have to look increasingly at people like me who have come to Georgia by choice, who are educating their children here, and who have as much vested interest in UGA’s success as anyone.”

Phillips, whose gift helped UGA raise a then-record $72 million in 2003, is a shining example of the power of friendship. But he’s just one of a number of non-alumni who provide financial support for UGA.

“We’re Georgians, so we want our flagship institution to be the best public research institution in the country!” says Jane Willson, a Wellesley College graduate who runs Sunnyland Farms’ thriving mail-order pecan business in Albany along with her husband Harry, who has degrees from Harvard and Emory. The Willsons have supported UGA in a number of ways, including a professorship in humanities. “We have good feelings toward the University,” says Jane, “and financial support is the way to make it great.”

Having spent most of his life in “Muh-ZURR-uh,” Cecil Phillips wanted to see what the Southeast had to offer before finishing law school in Ann Arbor and beginning what he thought would be a career in Kansas City politics. Alston & Bird had offered him a job for the summer. He took it, fell in love with the firm and Atlanta, and decided to stay in the South for awhile.

“You’ll never come home,” said his grandparents. And they were right.

When the government of Iraq issued public tender for frozen chicken and an American agricultural cooperative answered the call, the firm asked Phillips to fly to Baghdad and write the contract.

“What I thought was going to be a one-shot, 20-page contract,” said Phillips, “eventually turned into a 185-page document translated into Arabic from page one to the end.”

When Busbee was reelected governor in 1978, he called Alston & Bird and asked for Phillips.

“Cecil, this is George Busbee. What are you doing?”

“Well . . . I’m sitting in my office,” said Phillips, trying to figure out which one of his colleagues was duping him by imitating the governor’s voice.

“Can you come see me?” said the person on the phone.

So Phillips made the 10-minute walk from his Five Points law firm to the governor’s office—and, lo and behold, when he got there George Busbee was, in fact, expecting him.

“Look,” said Busbee, getting straight to the point. “I want you to come work with me. I hear you know your way around outside the three-mile limit, you have a passport, and I can pay you $26,000 a year for your services.”

Now, $26,000 wasn’t even a lot of money in ’78, but the firm was happy to loan him to the governor and the two men hit it off from day one.

“People today take Georgia’s growth for granted,” said Phillips. “But George Busbee is the man who made Atlanta and the state a player in the world of international business. Gov. Carter had worked on behalf of an existing customer, helping Lockheed sell small jets to Brazil, for example. But what Busbee did was create a structural realignment of the way Atlanta and Georgia did business. He laid the groundwork and it continues to bear fruit every day.”

It’s not hard to imagine Cecil Phillips holding public office. The man can deliver a fascinating history lesson on a Spanish governor who helped German U-boats avoid the British Navy in World War II—and he can do it in fluent Spanish, if you like. He can give a tutorial on the intricacies of international trade, and make it real with first-person anecdotes about Japanese auto workers on the assembly line. He can conduct a crash course on the essential tenets of construction management, provide an insider’s view of how a big city law firm operates—and he does it all in the persona of a down-to-earth guy who could be sharing his expertise at a lectern in the Student Learning Center or from a bar stool at The Globe.

“When development officers came to see me after I made this gift,” said Phillips, “I told them I would be very low maintenance. I don’t even need to be taken to dinner. But I do take my daughter to dinner when I’m in Athens. And I like to wander around campus. The Student Learning Center is so magnificent it makes me want to go back to school.”

Phillips hopes his gift will encourage Georgians to support their flagship institution and the system as a whole.

“These are tough times for post-secondary education,” said Phillips. “The level of state support for UGA has dropped to 35 percent. The national average is 34 percent—and in Virginia and Michigan it’s a dime. A dime!

“If you’re the president of the University of Georgia, when you wake up on Jan. 2—and your football team has won a bowl game the day before—you celebrate. But by noon, you’ve got a budget deficit to make up. And that trend is not going to reverse itself. This is a permanent paradigm shift toward universities having to increase the amount of their private funding—and their supporters are going to have to accept that challenge.”

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Before he started building innovative student housing, Phillips was a globetrotting legal expert for Gov. George Busbee (BBA ’49, LLB ’52). To pay tribute to his mentor, Phillips gave UGA $1 million for the George D. Busbee Chair in the School of Public and International Affairs. Photo by Paul Efland

Busbee spoke at a reception commemorating Phillips’ gift in January 2003. (Pls. note: Gov. Busbee passed away while this story was being written.) Photo by Rick O'Quinn

As president/CEO of Atlanta-based Place Properties, Phillips builds large, privately funded apartment buildings designed specifically for students. He is also a UGA Foundation trustee. Photo: Special

With state funding at 35%, Phillips says UGA cannot prosper without private support from people with a vested interest in UGA’s success. Photo by Paul Efland

Calling his innovative complexes “the future of student living,” Phillips’ company currently serves 18 colleges in both on- and off-campus sites, including seven in Georgia.