J. B. Fuqua was a self-made businessman who started with a handmade ham radio and built a multimillion-dollar empire that included television and radio stations and nearly two dozen other companies. He was as successful in politics as was in business. As chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, he ran Carl Sanders’s successful campaign for governor in 1962 and was instrumental in Jimmy Carter’s early political career. In his later years, Fuqua became well known as a philanthropist, having donated more than $100 million to the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, Piedmont Hospital, the Atlanta Botanical Garden, and other worthy causes.
John Brooks Elam, the son of John B. and Ruth Fuqua Elam, was born on June 26, 1918, on a tobacco farm in Prince Edward County, Virginia. His mother died two months after he was born, and he was raised by his maternal grandparents, who changed his last name to Fuqua (pronounced “few-kwa”). With no playmates nearby, Fuqua spent much of his time alone reading books. While his classmates were reading novels for young people, Fuqua devoured books on banking, finance, and business. Fuqua’s life changed one Saturday afternoon when, at about the age of fourteen, he tuned in to a Richmond, Virginia, radio station and heard a chief engineer who was teaching a course in Morse code. At the end of the program, the engineer announced that for twenty-five cents listeners could order a booklet entitled How to Become an Amateur Radio Operator. Fuqua made what he later said was the best investment of his life and soon began assembling a simple ham radio. His knowledge of radios and Morse code led him into his first job as a radio operator in the merchant marine, on the freighter SS Sagadahoc. After completing his tour with the merchant marine, Fuqua went to work as a temporary engineer at radio station WIS in Columbia, South Carolina, and eventually was promoted to chief engineer at the company’s Charleston, South Carolina, station.
In 1940, at the age of twenty-one, he drove to Augusta and persuaded three businessmen he had never met to lend him $10,000 to build a radio station. He launched WGAC by using other people’s money, a practice that would serve him well in his future business career. As an ambitious young entrepreneur in Augusta, Fuqua attracted the attention of businessmen who were willing to become his partners in other enterprises. These included the Royal Crown Bottling Company, WJBF radio and television stations, Claussen’s Bakeries, and Willingham Automobile Finance Company.
Fuqua’s venture into the world of conglomerates began in 1965, when he gained control of Natco, a brick and tile manufacturer. He followed that deal with the acquisition of other companies, including Martin Theaters, the Snapper Power Equipment Company, and Georgia Federal. Over the next several decades Fuqua bought companies the way some people buy stock, and he developed Fuqua Industries into a corporation worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
In 1957 Fuqua began a political career that spanned three terms in the Georgia legislature and ended when he left the chair of the Georgia Democratic Party in 1966. While in the General Assembly, he was responsible for passing legislation to finance a new governor’s mansion. After helping Carl Sanders become governor in 1962, Fuqua became friends with John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and other national leaders. With the help of U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy, he and Sanders were able to prevent much of the racial violence that plagued some other southern states.
After leaving politics Fuqua combined business with philanthropy. To show his gratitude to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, for lending him books through the mail as a teenager, he donated $10 million to establish the Fuqua School of Business in 1980. In the late 1980s, just as the Soviet Union was on the verge of breaking up, he began a program to teach American capitalism to business leaders in the former Soviet Union. Selected businessmen were brought to the Fuqua School of Business for several weeks of intense instruction.
Friends describe Fuqua’s life as the ultimate rags-to-riches story, and in fact, he was presented with the Horatio Alger Award by the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans in 1984. But his financial success was accompanied by several personal tragedies. The worst of these was in 1970, when the younger of his two sons, Alan, was killed in a plane crash at the age of eighteen. Another setback came in 1991, when he lost control of the company he had built. In his 2001 memoir, Fuqua: How I Made My Fortune Using Other People’s Money, he publicly acknowledged that he had suffered from severe depression much of his life.
After his retirement, Fuqua continued to go into his office every day and also advised his son, J. Rex, on business ventures. Much of his time was given to considering new philanthropic projects. His charitable work was concentrated in Atlanta, where he had lived since 1967. His contributions included a $5.5 million donation to the Atlanta Botanical Garden to establish the Dorothy Chapman Fuqua Conservatory in honor of his wife and another $3 million for the Orchid House. He also gave $6 million to establish the Fuqua Heart Center at Piedmont Hospital and $4 million to Wesley Woods Center of Emory Healthcare and the George West Mental Health Foundation for the treatment of depression in the elderly, all in Atlanta.
Fuqua died in Atlanta of complications from bronchitis in April 2006.