Q4 – 2023

Donata Russell Ross leads Concessions International, one of the largest minority-owned airport food and beverage operators in the U.S.

By Katja Ridderbusch

After the pandemic began to ebb and travelers started heading back to airports, Donata Russell Ross put on a bright blue uniform shirt and a hairnet. That morning she worked in the kitchen, behind the counter, and waited tables at Paschal’s Restaurant & Bar in Terminal B of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest passenger hub.

After her shift, the manager said he’d hire her on the spot. Only that wasn’t an option, since Ross’s work had been a one-day sideline to her usual job as president and CEO of Concessions International (CI), one of the country’s largest minority-owned food and beverage operators serving airports in the United States and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

That day, Ross wanted to get a feel for how her employees were holding up, at a time when the hospitality industry was recovering from the Covid gloom and many restaurants were severely understaffed. The team at the airport Paschal’s, who all knew Ross, said they’d rather work extra hours than hire just anybody and disrupt the team. “That was the moment when I knew CI was going to be okay,” she says. And thanks to the dedication of partners and employees, that the company would survive the pandemic.

With a warm smile, calm voice, and observant eyes, Ross stands out among Atlanta’s most respected business leaders. She’s spent her entire career at Concessions International, which was cofounded in 1979 by influential Atlanta entrepreneur Herman J. Russell Jr., Ross’s father and the founder of H.J. Russell & Company, a pioneering Black owned real estate and construction firm.

Ross joined CI in 1984 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. “We’re operating as a midsized company among big fish,” she says. Global players in the airport concessions industry include HMS Host, owned by Italian-based multinational catering conglomerate Autogrill, and Areas, a leading concessionaire based in Spain.

With 1,200 employees nationwide and more than $100 million in annual revenue, CI serves eight airports across the U.S., including Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, Denver, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and the Virgin Islands. The company partners with popular chains such as Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, Sweet Water Brewing Company, and soon, PF Chang’s. It also works with local restaurant icons like the Atlanta airport Paschal’s. The original Castleberry Hill Paschal’s is an Atlanta landmark where civil rights leaders, Black entertainers, and entrepreneurs like to mingle.

“We’re still nimble enough to make decisions quicker and more efficiently [than larger companies],” says Ross. Some of CI’s partners, “especially those who are chefs, owners, and operators, all want to make sure that the people they work with understand the integrity of their brand and concept.” One of those partners is celebrity chef Bobby Flay, owner of Bobby’s Burger Palace, which has a location at the Atlanta airport.

Ross says airports are highly diverse places and, therefore, a good fit for her business. What she finds particularly fascinating about working in airport concessions is that it requires lots of creativity because cookie-cutter solutions simply don’t work.

Each airport and concourse have their own character and personality, says Ross. It depends on the airlines that operate out of them, the destinations of the flights and the customer base, whether it’s low cost or full-service carriers, domestic or international trips, and leisure or business travelers. Leisure travelers, for example, tend to be a bit more price-conscious than business travelers, says Ross, which means that restaurants need to adjust their menus and concepts to meet those needs.

Another reason why Ross loves the airport concessions industry is the people. Hospitality, she says, “is a very dynamic and stressful business.” Yet it creates an environment that fosters a strong team spirit, “where you work hard and play hard.”

As a boss, Ross says she tries to be a good listener. “I look for people smarter than me, stronger than me, and I’m happy to take their advice and trust their instincts,” she comments. She believes that people should be allowed to make mistakes. Doing so, she explains, provides them with an opportunity to learn and grow. Most importantly, Ross likes to think of her employees as family.

Yet, there’s no special treatment for those who are, in fact, blood family, says her niece, Mori Russell. Russell is in charge of CI’s business development unit. She describes her aunt’s leadership style as “one of grace and patience.” Ross, she says, taught her to understand the intricacies of corporate etiquette and “the ability to read a room.”

Ross is the oldest of Herman Russell’s three children, including brothers Michael and Jerome. “Even in business, Donata is the big sister, in a good way,” says Michael Russell, CEO of H.J. Russell & Company, which specializes in real estate development, construction, program management, and property management. He describes her leadership style as caring, thoughtful, and logical. But he’s also seen her thrive under pressure, especially during Covid, when CI had to reduce its workforce from over 1,000 to under 100.

“With all her compassion, she showed some toughness and a focus on survival,” Michael says. “A strategy,” he adds, “that led to a successful comeback after the pandemic.”

Ross says her father was her biggest inspiration in becoming a businesswoman. He instilled his children with a strong work ethic, commitment to employees, and a powerful entrepreneurial spirit. As a teenager, Ross helped as an office clerk, collecting rent, while her brothers worked on the firm’s construction sites.

Between the three Russell siblings, there are eight children and six grandchildren. Ross has two adult sons from her first marriage, Zane and Emanuel Major, who both work in the family business. Ross also has two granddaughters, ages four and two, whom she affectionately calls “the joy of my heart.”

Her second husband, Mike Ross, is CEO of a project management firm outside of the Russell family business. They have known each other since childhood and reconnected over 10 years ago. “We are perfect for each other,” Ross says of her husband. “We both have our own lives and then come together to travel and have a good time.”

At 65, her focus is on succession, she says, and on grooming the next generation of leaders to “take the company to a whole other level.” The business has a strong foundation, she adds, but there are also challenges ahead.

The biggest trends are the integration of technology— from robotic bartenders, already serving customers at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, to self-ordering and self-paying kiosks and pre-ordering apps. Many of these concepts already exist but haven’t been widely implemented or fully embraced by travelers.

Over the course of her 40-year tenure at Concessions International, Ross says she has experienced many crises and comebacks—from 9/11 to recessions to the pandemic—and learned valuable lessons. The main one she wants to share with the next leaders of the family enterprise: “Having seen all these cycles taught me to hold on—and understand there will be a better day,” she says.

But before she passes the baton in the next few years, Ross might be working one more shift at Paschal’s on Concourse B at her hometown airport. Not because there’s a crisis, but because she enjoys interacting with people, whether they are family, employees, or customers.

Photo courtsey of Concessions International

© GABiz Magazine/Katja Ridderbusch