The passing of a giant

Sep 13, 2020

“My good friend of more than 25 years, Jack Portman passed away suddenly on the morning of August 28.”

My good friend of more than 25 years, John C. Portman, III – known by all as “Jack” Portman, chairman of Portman Architects – passed away suddenly on the morning of August 28. I just spoke to him a couple nights earlier and he was supposed to call me the day he died. He wasn’t sick. He was vital. He was nine years older and like a brother to me. We both went through a lot personally and professionally as individuals and together over the years.

Jack and I had a special relationship from the onset. I worked for his father, John C. Portman, Jr., who was one of – if not the world’s most financially successful architects. John Portman made his money, however, by combining his futuristic design abilities with his entrepreneurial skills as a developer and businessperson. He invented the atrium hotel and sold it to Hyatt. He created The Merchandise Mart in downtown Atlanta and started the redevelopment of the city that continues to this day. All told Portman designed and developed something like 28 medium- and high-rise buildings in downtown Atlanta alone over 50+ years.

But enough about John Portman. His son, Jack, also an architect, was instrumental to the success of Portman over the years. He was a talented designer in his own right. But besides the fact that he was just a great guy who could make anyone feel special, he got Portman the opportunity to do their very first project in mainland China – Shanghai Centre – also the first development project done by any American company on mainland Chinese soil. A Harvard GSD grad in 1973, Jack moved to Hong Kong in 1979 and later to Shanghai. He also spent a lot of time in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea, and India.

The guy had a great sense of humor. One time we had gone some time without seeing or talking to each other and he texted me out of the blue. He simply said, “I’m in New Delhi. There’s nothing new about it.”

Jack’s father wasn’t always an easy guy to work for, and I’m sure it wasn’t always easy being his son and working in the business that bore his name. John Portman was powerful, demanding, and a larger than life figure. We all called him “Mr. Portman.” I always thought he was lucky to have Jack working there because not only did the Asian business Portman had because of Jack save them in the ‘90s, Jack was also the one who could always make people (including me!) feel better after they had a difficult interaction with his father. He knew how to treat people. Back in February, my wife and I were in Atlanta visiting with Jack and doing some work for Portman Architects. It was Valentine’s Day and Jack didn’t want any of us to miss it. He took my wife, Rob Halverson (president of Portman Architects) and his wife, and myself out for an amazing Valentine’s dinner. He was considerate and thoughtful.

Jack had a million crazy stories and there are as many about him as he told. One time I was in Atlanta and he and I walked to dinner. On the way back to the office we started talking about one of our favorite subjects – cars. He always had cool ones. He told me he got a new car and asked if I wanted to see it. In the first parking place in the company parking garage sat a brand new Ferrari F355 Spider. He threw the keys to me and told me to take it out for a while. So I drove around Atlanta with the top down that night and felt like a rock star.

Jack came to our firm’s first “Racing to the Future” CEO conference in 1997 that we held in Palm Beach that included two days at Skip Barber Racing School. He also came to our third “Racing to the Future” in Las Vegas years later at “Fast” Freddie Spencer’s superbike school. Afterward he traded his Harley in for a souped up Ducati 748, a motorcycle only someone half-crazy like Jack would use to commute to work.

The real evidence of his character was shown by how he treated everyone he met as if they were special. He would always talk to the servers at any restaurant we went to. On one of my trips to Atlanta I was waiting for an Uber to pick me up in front of the Indigo Hotel downtown. The parking valet asked me what I was doing in Atlanta. I told him we were there visiting a friend. He asked me who. I said “Jack Portman.” He immediately smiled and said, “Oh yes! Mr. Portman comes over here and every time he does he stops to talk to us. Such a nice guy.” He never acted like he thought he was special because of his success.

Jack loved his children (he had five) and all of his family members, and bragged about each of them a lot. He was also one of those people who maintained good relationships even with his ex-wives (not always easy – I speak from experience!). He took both of them and all of their kids on vacation together last year.

The guy was fearless. Even though he was smaller in stature and soft-spoken, he would not back down from any kind of an altercation if he deemed it worth fighting for. And he would go anywhere to win a project. Portman was always pioneering. They did (and still do) huge landmark projects that functioned as seeds to revitalize urban areas. He would immerse himself in the local culture, learn the language, and know exactly what to do to bring it all to fruition.

I don’t have that many friends that I regularly talk to. I’m going to miss Jack greatly as I know everyone in the Portman Companies will as well.

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at

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