The sequel

John Rooker (BBA ’02) sees the big picture and fast-forwards a family legacy

Charles McNair | Jun. 08, 2021

John Rooker
John Rooker (BBA ’02) has grown the business built by his father by targeting promising markets and developing new ventures in the film industry.

The Terry College of Business students know the famous name.

In the 1960s, John W. “Jack” Rooker (BBA ’60) entered working life with his father — Terry alum William A. Rooker Sr. (BSC ’33) — at Southern Bonded Warehouse, a third-party logistics company that stored and shipped inventory for businesses in fast-growing Atlanta. In a few years, Jack evolved the family interests, launching an industrial real estate development company.

Working within 50 miles of Atlanta, Jack grew John W. Rooker and Associates through the second half of the 20th century into one of the most successful and respected firms in Georgia.

Students in the beautiful Business Learning Community along Hull Street take classes in Moore-Rooker Hall. The building that would become Moore-Rooker started in a small cardboard box where Jack and his lifelong friend Dudley L. Moore (BBA ’57), a successful independent insurance agent, stuffed $50 monthly donations. They eventually invested their stash in real estate, and when they sold a valuable Atlanta warehouse property in 2016, Rooker and Moore gifted the proceeds to the Terry College, a key piece of capital funding for the building that now bears their names.

Now a next-generation Rooker, John (BBA ’02), has stepped forward to play the role of a lifetime.

John took over from Jack as Rooker Co. CEO in 2012. In the momentous decade since, the charismatic 41-year-old has successfully grown the firm by adopting a new business model, targeting promising new markets — Sunbelt cities — and developing surprising new ventures with their own famous names — Netflix, Fox, and HBO, among others.

An understudy taking on the Rooker legacy could easily have played it safe and simply coasted.

Not John.

“His biggest decision so far has been to give up the general contractor business and go totally into development,” Jack says.

“I think we were headed that way, and it was natural to switch over. John’s been able to throw a bigger net, and that net has been very rewarding. He did the right thing, and he did it at the right time, and he did it in the right way.”

The reviews are in. And Rooker’s four divisions (industrial development, government development, asset management, and Atlanta Metro Studios) are thriving.

The net asset value of combined Rooker holdings has increased 70 percent from 2017 through 2020. In the past five years, the company has developed 14 office projects with a total value of $143 million for the federal government. Also, the Rooker Industrial portfolio has kept occupancy at 95 percent in the past five years while developing more than 3 million square feet of new industrial space.

Not bad for an opening scene.

 

New day, new business model

John began to script the Rooker sequel soon after becoming CEO.

“It’s hard to be a good developer and a good general contractor at the same time,” John says. “By 2015, construction had become so competitive and margins so thin that it became a volume game. The way we were set up, we were never going to achieve the volume it took to keep us growing the way we had in the past. So, it made sense to transition out of general contracting and focus on developing.”

John Rooker cast the bigger net his father mentioned, looking beyond Atlanta for the first time into secondary markets, at growing cities such as Nashville, Greenville/Spartanburg, Tampa, Charleston, Savannah and Jacksonville. John and his team carefully tracked growth dynamics in these markets, noting population rise, company relocations, the construction of distribution centers.

As a privately held enterprise with a lean, trusted management team, Rooker could move quickly to seize opportunities.

“We have the ability to examine a market and quickly decide if it’s one we want to be in,” John says. “We can then focus on analyzing and acquiring a site, getting loans or partnerships and getting a building out of the ground.

“There’s not a lot of red tape. We sit around a table where we have all the players in place to make a decision. There’s no board approval, no investment committee review, just the right people to make a call.”

Murray Reavis, Rooker Co. CFO for 17 years, worked with Jack and now with John. He has a close-up lens on company decision-making.

“John’s best leadership skill is that he listens to the people around him,” Reavis says. “He is not one to rush to judgment. He’ll ask questions and gather input and make a well-thought-out decision. He’s self-aware, knows where his strengths are. People feel very valued by him, and you want to do well.

“John makes the ultimate decisions, and sometimes it’s 50 percent financial models and 50 percent gut … maybe simply liking the way the sun rises on a piece of land. It’s like John can feel progress moving in that direction.”

John Rooker

Atlanta Metro Studios

In 2015, John felt progress moving in the direction of movie production.

Shannon Mall, built in 1979, stood abandoned in Union City, just off I-85, seven miles south of Atlanta’s busy international airport. Movie production was a growing industry in Georgia, thanks to a farsighted legislative policy that gave studios financial incentives to film in the state.

John recognized opportunity.

The mall sat on 100 acres co-owned by various parties, including previous mall tenants — Macy’s, Sears and others. Trusting he could wrangle a deal, John brought them all to the table. Next, he met with Union City officials who wanted to hear that “development” meant something other than dirt and trucks.

Through these sensitive negotiations, John presented a marquis project for the property — a world-class movie production studio. The city embraced his vision. Funding flowed. A huge groundbreaking ceremony brought out Union City’s mayor and city council various state representatives, and various other dignitaries.

“John orchestrated that whole process,” says Reavis. “He deserves all the credit in the world.”

Atlanta Metro Studios has been a success by any measure. Year-over-year revenue growth increased an average of 13 percent annually from 2016 through year-end 2020. All 245,000 square feet are at 100-percent occupancy by production companies.

“We’ve been fully booked for three straight years with new and repeating clients,” says Nick Smerigan, founder of RoadTown Enterprises LTD, AMS’s management entity. “One of our proudest achievements was hosting HBO’s ‘Watchmen,’ the most-nominated TV show in the history of the Emmys.”

A-list stars wander the Union City property: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Gal Gadot, Jeremy Irons, Regina King, Cate Blanchett, Jack Black, Naomi Watts, Don Johnson, Melissa McCarthy, Octavia Spencer and many more.

Smerigan’s role underscores another of John Rooker’s skills — sizing people up. Associates say Jack had the same ability to assess the worthiness of new contacts in a short time. John and Nick first shook hands in 2015, when Smerigan was doing design work for the development.

“Rooker asked me if I would also be interested in hiring and training the studio staff,” Smerigan says. “We were discussing operational procedures, paperwork, etc., and in the middle of that process, they asked if I would manage the facility until it got on its feet.”

The studio is certainly on its feet — in fact, it’s off and running. Smerigan is still there. With the official title of director of operations/consultant, the California-based veteran of studio management worldwide books Atlanta Metro Studios, negotiates client contracts, approves all purchases, and hires and schedules all the staff. He also sets deals and prices for vendors providing client services.

“John has the final say on everything,” Smerigan says. “He visits the studio on a regular basis, and we speak by phone about prices for a client, booking schedules, repairs we need to make, employee issues, everything. John is very open to suggestions and ideas, and he often adds to what we present.”

The remaining four-fifths of the Shannon Mall property, the land without the sound stages and rolling cameras, got a plum role too.

Rooker Co. developed Union Station Business Center on 65 acres, a project that won Georgia’s prestigious 2015 “Industrial Deal of the Year” Award, presented by the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties. The $26 million, 988,000-square-foot distribution facility has 36-foot clear height ceilings and 60-foot-wide bays for handling consumer product and e-commerce operations. It houses a DHL logistics hub that brings good jobs to Union City. (Rooker sold the business center property in 2016 to CBRE Global Investors.)

Bottom line, John Rooker and his team replaced a derelict mall with a movie production studio and a modern e-commerce facility.

“It’s pretty progressive,” says Smerigan. “John understood what was coming to Atlanta, and he understood what this property could mean. His foresight was cutting-edge.”

 

The family way

John’s mom, Cindy Rooker, called after this past April’s G-Day Game. She caught her son on the way back from Sanford Stadium.

“John was walking home with his kids,” she says. “I thought, he’s in heaven. He’s not out with his friends, drinking beer. He’s with his kids. That’s just so cool.”

John and his wife, April (BBA ’02), moved to Athens four years ago from busy Atlanta with their trio: Will (11), Lola (9) and Tatum (6). They moved into a new house in Five Points last December, and they’re still settling in. John and April often attend sporting events at Athens Academy, where the kids go, and at UGA.

“It’s so great and so easy,” John says. “When we take the kids places here, it’s extremely less stressful than Atlanta. Actually, having some sense of belonging breathes energy into everything.”

Athens feels like home. It’s where John and April met, when she was moving into her dorm for freshman year. Her roommate went to The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, where John went. They started dating sophomore year.

“John was nice, likable, lots of fun,” says April. “He seemed trustworthy. We had lots of mutual friends, so he’d been vetted.”

After their wedding, they settled into Atlanta and started family life … for the long haul, April assumed. But to her surprise, John asked about moving back to Athens from Atlanta not long after Rooker Co. built its first downtown Atlanta headquarters building, on Bishop Street, overlooking Atlantic Station.

John made his case. He always loved Athens. He met April there. He delighted in the university, the vibe, the football games. Terry College was important to him. Athens held fond memories of his beloved late grandmother, Mary Winston Rooker (BSAA ’33), who lived there.

April was skeptical. What sense did it make to live in Athens and commute 70 miles to work?

“John told me,” April recalls, “OK, it’s fine if we don’t move. I won’t bring it up again. I just want you to know it’s something I’ll regret the rest of my life.”

They started looking at houses.

“John is definitely a country boy at heart who felt stuck in the city in Atlanta,” April says. “We can drive 10 minutes from home now, and it’s green. We love the Bulldogs, and game days are way easier now, seeing we’re at ground zero. Things are more spur-of-the-moment and spontaneous. In Atlanta, it was harder to get around, and we had to plan everything. Athens is very, very easy.”

Matt Wirth (BBA ’01) is managing director in the Atlanta office of JLL Capital Markets, Americas. Wirth attended Terry and Westminster with John, and they often professionally partner nowadays on industrial real estate deals.

“John is the very definition of a people person,” Wirth says. “People are drawn to him, and he’s constantly making new connections. As a friend, he’s someone you can trust and depend on, somebody you can go to with anything in your life, professional and personal. I think a lot of people feel that way about him.”

How was John academically?

“The real estate career has probably been a little easier than school,” Wirth smiles. “John certainly wasn’t a stand-out performer academically, but he grinded through.”

John confesses he has “a little ADD,” a condition making study difficult. It never deterred him from finding solutions.

Cindy Rooker recalls how Jack was once working with his son on his math.

Now … how does two go into four? Jack asked

Twice, John said.

And how does two go into three? Jack asked.

John thought before answering.

I guess I’d have to jam it in there.

“That’s how John got through school,” Cindy laughs. “He just jammed it in there.”

 

What makes you stronger

Though business has gone well, the past couple of years have tested the Rooker family.

Jack took a fall in 2020. He broke his femur and shattered a hip replacement. At age 82, the Rooker patriarch bravely battled back from a hospital bed to independent mobility on a walker. Cindy even catches him now sneaking around without the walker, earning a quick scolding.

Cindy has leaned on her son during this trial.

“John’s gone through it with me,” she says. “He’s held my hand many times.

In convalescence, Jack spent two months at Piedmont Hospital, two at Emory Rehabilitation Hospital, and six weeks at Shepherd Center, with its excellent rehab staff and facilities. (John is a board member at Shepherd, as he is at the Terry College).

“I was home alone all that time, and John was very attentive,” Cindy says. “It’s hard, I know, because he’s busy. It has been a big test on everybody. And everybody’s stood strong and leaned against each other.”

Those who work with John say they get the same brand of care. Genuine. Selfless.

“Rooker is a family-run business that treats people like family,” says Wirth. “They treat employees like family, business partners like family, and economic development people like family.”

Rooker CFO Reavis shares the same testimony.

“People migrate to the Rookers,” he says. “People enjoy working with them. People like seeing them succeed. They know the Rookers are always going to do the right thing even when they don’t have to.”

Projected onto the big screen, the Rooker family story would feel epic — larger-than-life characters in a multi-generational saga encompassing nearly 100 years of Georgia’s history for the 20th century, in a time when Atlanta was bursting with growth and jobs and opportunities.

The 21st century? Here’s a whole new sequel.

John Rooker sits in the director’s chair.


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