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Bill Russell: Beautifying Gwinnett’s Landscape Corner By Corner

Warm, witty, charming. Those are just some of the words that describe Bill Russell, founder of Russell Landscape Group–one of the most famous landscape companies in the Southeast.

As a young boy, Russell wasn’t as familiar with the world of beautifying and perfecting landscapes. He was raised on a farm just forty miles south of Nashville, Tennessee and helped manage his family’s livestock, crops, and financials. From an early age, he adopted a “toil in the soil” mindset, understanding the value of hard work and work ethic from his father and gaining his faith in God from his mother.

Russell was also involved in the Tennessee walking horse industry and ambitioned to continue working in it and become a veterinarian when he grew up. Being the eldest of thirty-five grandchildren, he found no shortage of friends at Sunday lunch gatherings, which often inched upwards of a hundred family members. Russell, during high school, seldom ventured beyond Tennessee, so the thought of leaving all the familiar faces of family members behind to attend a college in Kentucky was quite overwhelming. Even though deeply homesick, he remained enrolled for some time–until his father realized he wasn’t attending classes.

With his lagging interest, Russell dropped out and returned to the farm. Shortly thereafter, Russell was drafted into the army, where he served two years which included being on the 6th Army military funeral team and a tour of Vietnam. Upon honorable discharge, he felt much more prepared to give college another go. This time, he enrolled in Middle Tennessee State University, hoping to stay close to the local Tennessee walking horse industry and attend veterinary school.

Growing up, Russell witnessed several of his family members serving public office, with one even being elected as secretary of education under two U S presidents. Leveraging them as inspiration, Russell served in student government in college, became president of his fraternity and also married the daughter of his hometown mayor–the love of his life, Sherry.

Four years later, Russell had double majored in pre veterinary med and agronomy. While eagerly awaiting the University of Tennessee to open the doors to its new vet school, he was sagely advised by one of his professors, a Southern Illinois University alum, to consider pursuing a master’s in the meantime. Russell heeded his advice and enrolled in a master’s program at Southern Illinois University shortly after his son, Teddy, was born, relocating the family to Carbondale, Illinois. That’s when his life’s ambitions took a turn in a completely unexpected direction. In Illinois, Russell witnessed a burgeoning growth in an industry that caused him to drop all thoughts of becoming a veterinarian.

“The relatively new agri-chemical industry was exploding rapidly throughout the mid western farm belt,” says Russell. “And Fortune 500 firms like Eli Lilly, Monsanto, Dow, Dupont and others were aggressively pursuing graduates like colleges pursue five-star athletes.”

After completing his Master’s, Russell received a fully paid research associateship to pursue his PhD at Ohio State University, making all three of his degrees paid for entirely by research associateships and the GI Bill. On his 30th birthday, Russell obtained his PhD in agri chemistry and accepted a district manager position with a globally recognized American pharmaceutical company.

He and his now family of four, after welcoming his daughter, Angie, relocated to Kansas City. As he scoped out the landscape, Russell noticed that some of the most influential business leaders in Kansas City were prominent farmers who managed 10,000 plus acres of mixed crop farmland. They were also his company’s customers, giving him confidence in the scope of the industry and its opportunities.

In 1979, double digit inflation, interest rates and unemployment made for a challenging economy. However, Russell’s corporate position made it possible for him to purchase the family’s first home and weather the economic storm well. Motivated by the strong momentum of his professional success and progress, Russell used his very first company-paid time off to attend The Missouri Auctioneer School so he could expand his skills and sell real estate at auction. Soon, his schedule grew packed. He often traveled throughout the midwest for work during the week, sold real estate on Saturdays, then scrambled home Sunday mornings to attend church with his family.

Although Kansas City had treated his family well, Russell still missed the south and set his sights on returning soon. In 1983, that desire became a reality when his company offered him a promotion as southeast regional research director of its Atlanta facility. Russell and his family made the trek south and initially set out to purchase a home in Dunwoody, just miles from his office at Tech Park in Peachtree Corners. However, several of his fellow colleagues recommended Gwinnett County, touting its visionary government leadership, favorable business climate and superior public school system.

“Listening to them and making Gwinnett home has proved to be some of the most prudent advice I’ve ever received,” says Russell.

Meanwhile, his company continued to boom with the economic growth of the 1980s. However, by 1986, Russell recognized that many of their product patents were nearing their 20-year expiration and generic brands would soon flood the market, possibly making for more challenging economic times ahead. The company offered him a transfer to its pharmaceuticals regulatory division, but Russell wasn’t willing to relocate again. Instead, he started considering initiating his own business, with several of his clients and others encouraging him to explore the possibility of commercial landscape contracting.

Finally, in March of 1987, Russell turned this ambition into a reality, landing his first annual contract with a California-based company for $300,000. In its first year alone, Russell Landscape Group generated $600,000–a hefty fortune. However, what Russell remembers most vividly from that time is family and friends questioning why he’d leave a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company executive position to “cut grass.”

“The greater the chastisement, the more determined I became to succeed,” says Russell. “Every negative remark helped me recognize that the best way to predict the future is to create it – and that no one can make you feel inferior without your permission.”

The early years of his business were challenging, as Russell spent time keeping an eye on operations, gauging work quality, and monitoring crew performance by day, then coming home to do bookkeeping by night.

“I wore all the hats, slept little, and found out early on that entrepreneurs often take the business exams before receiving the study materials,” says Russell.

Today, Russell and Sherry celebrate 49 years of marriage and Russell Landscape Group has grown from a small start up company to become Georgia’s largest privately owned state-based landscape contractor firm.

But this only starts the story of Russell’s much greater influence and imprint on Gwinnett County. According to Russell, it all started with the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, which champions small businesses. “During the early years of Russell Landscape Group,” says Russell, “the Chamber’s exemplary programs allowed us to both thrive and survive.”

Eager to contribute back to the community that had delivered him an abundance of luck and success, Russell applied to the Leadership Gwinnett program, established for leaders willing and able to contribute to the county’s growth and success. In 1997, the committee selected him, affording him access to a platform where Russell would gain exposure to various departments in county government, business, and lead organizations, helping him expand his network and extend his reach.

The program also introduced him to Gwinnett pioneers Richard Tucker and Tom Andersen, who invited Russell to join the Gwinnett Chamber Board of Directors and also its executive committee. And then, before he realized, Russell was a decision maker on a dozen different boards, contributing his knowledge and leadership expertise as a successful business owner.

In the midst of this, Russell’s friends and business acquaintances, the renowned Wayne Mason and Richard Tucker, approached Russell, requesting him to donate landscape materials and labor for the new Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce building. The donation amounted to nearly a quarter million dollars, making Russell pause. “Initially, I thought ‘There’s no way we can afford to do that,’” said Russell. “But the pair convinced me that the investment would return back manyfold–and their wisdom couldn’t have turned out to be more true!”

Shortly after completing the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce project, Russell Landscape Group exploded in growth with contracts and projects coming in left and right.

And Russell found himself even more immersed in the happenings of the county. He’s done philanthropic work for myriad sectors, raising millions of dollars in funds for nonprofits, charities, fundraisers and auctions. Most significantly, Russell is known for his contributions to the Open Heart campaign, where he served as chairman of major gifts after Gwinnett Medical Center received the Certificate of Need for open heart services at its Strickland Heart Center.

Alongside all of this, Russell has continued to use his landscaping prowess to execute beautifications on scores of marquee projects, such as Gas South District and numerous Community Improvement Districts throughout metro Atlanta. And on a state level, he was appointed by Governor Deal and reappointed by Governor Kemp to serve on the Board of Governors at the Georgia World Congress Center–the fourth largest entertainment, sports and convention facility in the nation. There he previously served two terms as Chairman.

“I believe in giving back to the community where our business and family have prospered,” says Russell.

For his years of invaluable contributions to the community, Russell has been honored with the Citizen of the Year from the Chamber of Commerce and a plethora of other awards including Metro Atlanta Landscape Association’s Pioneer Lifetime Achievement Award, Gwinnett Public School System’s Public Service Award, Gwinnett Clean and Beautiful Environmental Legacy Award, Northside Gwinnett Medical Center’s Distinguished Service award and many more. Humble in his acknowledgement of these accolades, Russell says, “I’m an import and have only been in Gwinnett forty years. I’ve merely ridden on the backs of the many patriarch and matriarch giants who came before me in shaping Gwinnett.”

For his outstanding contributions and leadership, Russell and a handful of other Gwinnett County leaders, such as Richard Tucker, were honored by Senator Brandon Beach and Commissioner Russell McMurray of the Georgia DOT. On his 70th birthday, as part of this honor, Russell accepted having a part of Highway 120 named after him in celebration of his achievements.

Today, Russell has stepped back from his founding company, handing the reins to his son, Teddy, who is now the owner and operator of Russell Landscape Group. Since the exchange, Teddy as CEO has led the company to nearly triple its revenues and taken it to another level of success. Russell remains extremely proud of him and also his daughter Angie, who herself has also kept true to the family’s landscape expertise guiding her own company for turf and mulch colorants, while working with some of the largest franchises in the nation.

As for his future plans, Russell has a few. “I look forward to finishing out my fourth term at the Georgia World Congress Center,” he says. “And I also am excited to spend more time with family and friends. I don’t ever plan to retire, but do want to do less to do more better.”

Click to view Bill Russell’s story and more in Gwinnett Magazine’s Winter 2024 Edition!