Above: Millard Choate and his daughter, Emily Choate Bridges, are with Choate’s prized 1934 Packard, one of up to 150 cars that will be on display at Choate Construction’s 11th annual Cars & ‘Q. The car show and party at the company’s Sandy Spring headquarters has raised nearly $2 million to fund a cure for cystic fibrosis. Photos courtesy of Cars N ‘Q for the Cause.
Gleaming classic cars and bikes once again are scheduled to roll through Sandy Springs, headed for Choate Construction’s Cars & ‘Q for the Cause in October; the event has been postponed from its original April date. The 11th annual event is a car show and barbecue fest that has raised more than $1.7 million for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and it’s rooted in the friendship of two little girls who met in 1988.
One of them was the daughter of Millard Choate, founder and chairman of Choate Construction. Soon after Emily Choate Bridges and Leann Rittenbaum Ott met in preschool, Leann was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a life-threatening genetic disease that primarily affects the lungs and digestive system.
“She was my daughter’s best friend, and when she was diagnosed at the age of 3, at that time the average survival age was 13, so that was a death sentence that hit us pretty hard,” Choate said.
When he started his company in the basement of his home in 1989, he simultaneously launched its outreach work to help end cystic fibrosis. Both life missions have achieved remarkable success. Choate Construction now has six regional offices scattered from Raleigh, N.C. to Savannah, Ga.
Last year, the company was named the Top 2019 Corporate Team in the Nation by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, having raised more than $3.5 million for the organization over the past 30 years. A big part of that has been Cars & ‘Q, an event organized by Bridges—now Choate Construction’s marketing director—who cleverly capitalized on her father’s lifelong affinity for collectible cars.
This year’s event is super-charged by the recent approval of Trikafta, a drug that could eventually be a highly effective therapy for the underlying cause of cystic fibrosis in more than 90% of people with the disease. This success is a direct result of Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s years of genetic research and funding pharmaceutical development, Choate said.
“We’ve still got work to do, as 90% is not 100%, but I am so proud of Cars & ‘Q’s role in this colossal step,” Bridges said. “There is an underlying belief (at Choate Construction) of the fact that we are stewards of the success we’re bestowed, of the dollars that we earn.”
Her words echoed those of her father, a man who grew up on a cattle farm with parents who’d been deeply impacted by the Great Depression. She said he’s been a great role model for her and her sister, Katie Choate, and for his employees.
“He’s extremely hardworking, and he’s just damn smart,” Bridges said. “However, there are a lot of smart people who work hard. It’s the level of passion and faith that he brings to the table that is unique.”
Work, invest, save
Life on the family farm in Nashville, Tenn., fueled that passion. “We wasted absolutely nothing,” Choate said, of those days. “There was a lot of very hard work. My dad was pretty stern. For years, it was work-invest-save, work-invest-save.
“Waste is the worst word in the world to me, worse than any four-letter word you could imagine. And the worst form of waste is laziness, squandering your natural abilities,” he said. “That background made me to this day want to extract the maximum return on any and all resources.”
Choate worked his way through high school and Vanderbilt University, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in economics and business.
His company has built a lengthy list of award-winning projects including the 600,000-square-foot expansion and addition to Shepherd Center’s rehabilitation hospital in Buckhead and the 300,000-square-foot expansion of Jackson Healthcare’s corporate headquarters in Alpharetta. Among ongoing projects, construction began in January on a nine-story Hyatt House hotel in the Pill Hill medical hub in Sandy Springs.
Two years ago, Choate gave his 480 employees the gift of making Choate Construction 100% employee owned.
‘We still have to get to the goal line’
Through it all, Choate and his wife, Sue, have continued to live in the Brookhaven home they moved to 40 years ago.
“My wife and I are pretty frugal,” he said. “That’s a philosophy that drives me.”
His kryptonite, though, is vintage cars. Among his collection are a factory original 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air and a very rare 1934 Packard Super Eight Dual-Cowl Sport Phaeton. Choate changes their oil and filters himself in a maintenance garage at his home, “mainly because it’s faster,” he said.
Some of his cars will be part of Cars & ‘Q, where crowds now top 1,200 and which last year raised more money than ever—$515,422.
“What is so cool about the car show is how our employees are the ones that are generating those figures,” Bridges said. “It’s not just Dad. It’s not me. It’s the entire company.”
The event’s first Warrior Award was bestowed last year in recognition of a Cars & ‘Q sponsor who has demonstrated steady dedication to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. This year it goes to the Metromont Corporation.
The award is given in memory of the event’s inspiration, Leann Rittenbaum Ott. She died at age 33 in 2018, eight months after a double lung transplant. Her mother, Karen Rittenbaum, asked Bridges to write her obituary.
Her father, Scot Rittenbaum, is former executive director of the Georgia Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. He said Choate Construction has had “mind-boggling” impact on cystic fibrosis and that the Choate family has been with his family every step of the way.
“Leann, with the Choates, was just able to be a little girl, then a teenager, then an adult, and that provided Leann and our family great comfort,” he said. “There was one place where she could just be Leann, and that was probably the greatest gift of all.”
While the new drug didn’t come in time for her, it has given Choate what he calls a tangible return on investment. “As I keep telling our teams, we really had a great play there (with Trikafta), but we’re on the 10-yard line and we still have to get to the goal line,” he said. “We still have to finally eradicate this horrific disease.”
Almost as he said those words, Choate received an email bearing good news. Two more donations for Cars & ‘Q had just come in.
Cars & ‘Q for the Cause
The 11th annual Cars & ‘Q features up to 150 classic cars and bikes, barbecue dinner, craft brews and wine, a silent auction and live music by The Jump Cut band.
The event has been rescheduled, due to COVID-19 concerns, to Saturday, October 17, 3-6 p.m., at Choate Construction, 8200 Roberts Drive, Sandy Springs, Ga. 30350.
Advance tickets include dinner and range from $20-$40. Free for children under 6. All proceeds support the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.