Cofounder of the Home Depot and a well-known philanthropist, Bernie Marcus has spent the past twenty-five years making a positive impact on the economic and social life of Georgia, as well as on the lives of many of the state’s residents.
Originally from New Jersey, Bernard Marcus was born in 1929 and raised in Newark. His parents, recent Jewish immigrants from Russia, had little money, and the family lived in a poor section of the city. Marcus went to work at the age of thirteen, balancing a job and school. He wanted to become a doctor and enrolled at Rutgers University in New Jersey after finishing high school. Although he was a good student, his hopes of attending Harvard Medical School were soon dashed when, in his second year at Rutgers, he was told that because he was Jewish he would have to bribe a medical school administrator in order to gain admission. Lacking the requested $10,000, Marcus settled on becoming a pharmacist and graduated from Rutgers in 1954.
Marcus worked only briefly as a pharmacist; within a few years of completing college he had entered retail sales. For the next several decades he moved up the corporate ladder, working for a string of retail stores and manufacturing companies like Two Guys and Odell. By the mid-1970s Marcus was employed as an executive at Handy Dan Home Improvement Centers, a Los Angeles–based company with several dozen stores in the West. Arthur Blank, Marcus’s future business partner, also worked at Handy Dan as its chief financial officer.
In April 1978 Marcus and Blank were abruptly fired from Handy Dan’s. A friend and business associate, Ken Langone, convinced Marcus that it was the right time to open his own business. Several years earlier, Marcus had shared with Langone his idea for a national chain of warehouse-sized home improvement centers, and now unemployed, Marcus concurred that the time was right to bring his concept into being. Blank agreed to serve as Marcus’s partner, and after conducting a nationwide search for a suitable city in which to open their first stores, the two men decided on Atlanta. The first two Home Depot stores opened for business on June 22, 1979. The business proved successful, and within two years the company went public. Marcus and Blank embarked on an aggressive expansion program that also proved very successful. By 2014 the Home Depot employed more than 300,000 people in more than 2,200 stores located throughout North America.
A wealthy man due to his company’s success, Marcus soon became involved in a series of diverse philanthropic activities. His mother had instilled in him a commitment to donating to worthy causes, and Marcus, now a billionaire, started giving generously to causes close to his heart. Expressing pride in his Jewish heritage, he founded in 1991 the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), a nonpartisan think tank in Israel dedicated to promoting and defending democracy in that country. Marcus’s enthusiasm for Jewish causes motivated former Secretary of State George Schultz to become involved with the IDI, and together they created the sole consulting think tank for the Israeli army.
Marcus became involved in children’s health issues after an experience he had with a Home Depot employee and her sick child. In 1991 he founded the Marcus Institute (later the Marcus Autism Center, after a merger with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta), which provides treatment to children suffering from autism and related disorders. He also contributes to other health-related issues. In 2002 Marcus gave $3.9 million to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the creation of an emergency anthrax response center. Marcus runs his philanthropic endeavors out of the Marcus Foundation, where he serves as chairman of the board and is personally involved in deciding which organizations receive grants.
Marcus retired from active participation in the Home Depot in 2002. Since that time he has focused on his most recent and public philanthropic undertaking, the Georgia Aquarium. Marcus donated $200 million from his personal fortune to fund the project, which he considers his “thank you” to Georgia and its residents for helping him achieve his success. The facility opened in November 2005 and is one of the largest aquariums in the world. In addition to attracting visitors to downtown Atlanta, the Georgia Aquarium offers educational programs that meet the curriculum guidelines for Georgia schools and engages in international conservation research.