Tift, 83, still looking to grow business

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Maria-Jose Subiria


Though many his age are retired, Tommy Tift, Jr., said he works seven days a week, running the numerous businesses he owns.

Tift, 83, said his businesses include four real estate firms, a finance business, a property management business and brokerage business.

Tift said he is also the owner and president of the Atlanta Air Center, which is adjacent to, and about four minutes away from, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, at 3401 Norman Berry Road, Atlanta .

"I have pretty good longevity ... I just enjoy what I do," Tift said in a thick, Southern accent.

The Atlanta Air Center facility offers warehouse and office space for lease, and covers 80 acres. It consists of one office building, two single-tenant office/warehouse buildings, one multi-tenant building and 35 acres of undeveloped industrially and commercially zoned property, according to Tift.

"It is the largest private real-estate development adjacent to the airport," he said in an interview.

Tift said his goal is to develop the Atlanta Air Center into a global business incubator, where foreign companies would set up shop.

"If their business grows ... we've got the ability to expand into larger office space as needed," said Susan Christy, vice president of operations for the Atlanta Air Center.

"And we will help them expand and build," added Tift. "This is for international companies who are trying to get a feel for the market here."

Tift said he hopes to attract foreign-based firms to the Atlanta Air Center with its proximity to the world's busiest airport.

"We want to get customers that need to be at the airport, that travel a lot," he said. "They come and go."

Though attracting foreign businesses is one goal, U.S. firms have called the Atlanta Air Center home for years.

Christy, who has been working alongside Tift for 25 years, said the center is able to offer contiguous office space from 200 square feet to 4,000 square feet.

Tift said companies such as Starship Enterprises, an adult-novelty chain, and the communications company Comcast are tenants at the Atlanta Air Center.

"One of our largest warehouse tenants is Starship," said Tift. "We started them out. Their first store was on Virginia Avenue."

Tift noted that Starship Enterprises currently has 23 stores in the state of Georgia.

Bill Warren, president of Abbott Airline Uniforms, Inc., said his company has been housed at the Atlanta Air Center since 1991, and uses the space for retail trade.

Warren said he sells uniforms to pilots from various airlines, including Delta Air Lines, Atlantic Southeast Airlines, World Airways and AirTran Airways.

He said the location of the Atlanta Air Center is convenient for his business because it's about a third of a mile from the Delta Training Center, in Atlanta, where pilots train.

"It's perfect for our business," said Warren.

Warren said Tift has a good business mentality.

"Hopefully we can be as successful as he has been," said Warren.

According to Tift, the Atlanta Air Center property has been in his family since 1896. Before it was turned into the Atlanta Air Center, it was called the Piedmont Cotton Mills.

Tift said he graduated in 1949 from the U.S. Navy Academy, in Annapolis, Md., where he served as battalion commander, and that after a stint on Navy destroyers, he joined the family business and took over Piedmont Cotton Mills in 1954.

At that time the property was only 20 acres, he added.

Tift said he was asked to be a consultant to the Brazilian textile industry, and at first declined.

"But I got to thinking about it and said, 'What better way to see how the competition is doing there, than by going through the mills,'" he said.

Tift said he stayed in Brazil in the late 1960s, where he learned about the Brazilian textile industry, its competitive market and inexpensive labor.

He said he eventually came back to the U.S. and shut down his cotton mill in 1970.

"It was the toughest decision I had to make ... it was very lucky because it was right [by] the airport," he said of his business' survival.

According to Christy, Tift saw growth in the air freight industry at the time.

"The airport was growing and needed more space," said Christy. "It needed to move all of the air freight forwarders off of the airport."

Tift said because he knew this, and his building was vacant, he decided to lease his space to air freight companies.

Some of the Atlanta Air Center's first tenants included DHL, C F Air Freight and Airborne Air Freight, he said.

Tift said he was born in Atlanta in 1927, and has lived in Midtown since 1929, in the same house he was raised in.

He said his last name is recognizable, because both Tift County, in part, and the City of Tifton were named after his grandfather, Henry Harding Tift. Tift College was named after his grandmother, Bessie Tift, he added.