Written by Michael Davis (B.A. '03)
ith a $500 gift from his father, Chris Volk (MBA ’87) moved to Atlanta in 1980 at the invitation of a friend. Ted Turner was on the cusp of launching CNN, Maynard Jackson was in his second term as mayor, construction continued on MARTA’s Five Points rail station and the Atlanta airport’s gargantuan new midfield terminal was set to open that fall.
And the center of gravity for business in the Southeast was Atlanta — specifically downtown Atlanta.
Having just graduated from Washington and Lee University, Volk was looking to start a career away from his hometown of Manhattan. When he arrived in Atlanta, he found a job selling clothes and started taking accounting classes at Georgia State University.
Not because he wanted to be an accountant, he says, but because he wanted to learn about business.
“I had graduated from Washington and Lee with a liberal arts degree — in European history and French — but I had made a determination that I wanted to start my business career in commercial banking,” Volk says. “I thought the best way to get started in that was to learn how to read financial statements, so I took some classes in accounting.”
In the four decades since then, Volk has taken three companies public — including two he co-founded — and invested in more than $20 billion in real estate. He’s carved out a niche in business that serves a segment of mid-tier commercial clients that otherwise have trouble accessing the cash needed to buy their own properties to do business. And his companies have helped thousands of entrepreneurs like himself build enterprises that serve countless customers and provide jobs for untold numbers of workers.
In 2019, while serving as chief executive officer of STORE Capital Corp., which he helped found, he was named one of EY’s Entrepreneurs of the Year. In 2022, he received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Georgia State for not only his success, but his character and commitment to his community and to Georgia State.
Since stepping down from STORE Capital in 2021, he’s turned his attention to sharing what he knows about what makes a business work.
With his bachelor’s degree and some accounting classes under his belt, Volk found a job in Atlanta with National Bank of Georgia as a trainee. In the daytime he worked across divisions, learning the ins and outs of commercial banking, lending and portfolio evaluation at the bank’s downtown branch.
At night, Volk began taking classes for his MBA at Georgia State, a stone’s throw away from his office. Before he finished his MBA, he’d become an assistant vice president at the bank.
“I think night students are able to take a lot of what they’re seeing and doing on the job during the day and see it through a different prism in the classroom,” he says. “At some point in time, you find things you’ve learned resonate with you in some way, and you start to apply them. For example, I found I was able to take the things I learned in calculus to, in effect, help create ‘The Value Equation.’”
Volk left National Bank of Georgia in 1986 to move to Arizona to join the business of one of his banking customers, Franchise Finance Corporation of America (FFCA), a company he later took public with a listing on the New York Stock Exchange. The company invested in the real estate needed by chain restaurant owners to operate and leased the properties back to the businesses.
He completed the last three courses he needed for his MBA at Arizona State University and transferred the credits to Georgia State to graduate with a Georgia State degree.
As FFCA grew so did its funding needs. After all, buying commercial real estate is a cash-hungry endeavor, even if it is profitable. So, in 1992, Volk went to the company’s controlling shareholder with a plan to list FFCA on the stock market. Two years later, in 1994, the company went public with a valuation of about $1 billion and Volk became president and a member of its board of directors.
Franchise Finance was bought by GE Capital in 2001 and by that time had a valuation of about $2 billion, Volk says.
After an 18-month stint working for GE Capital, Volk saw an opportunity to launch his own company. Ten years after he took FFCA public, he listed his own firm, Spirit Finance, on the New York Stock Exchange.
Another 10 years later, in 2014, he did it again when he listed STORE Capital Corp. — Single Tenant Operational Real Estate — which he also co-founded.
“With STORE, we were going to focus on real estate that is intrinsic to business profitability,” Volk says. “Where the real estate and the business are virtually one in the same.”
Pictured with Georgia State President M. Brian Blake (left) in 2022, Chris Volk received the university's Distinguished Alumni Award, which celebrates the professional, philanthropic and personal achievement of outstanding alumni who personify leadership. Photos by Dot Paul
While growing STORE Capital into one of the largest net-lease real estate investment trusts in the U.S., with more than 3,000 properties as of fall 2022, Volk began to share what he’s learned over the course of his career about business.
The success of STORE’s customers — like health clubs, child-care centers, restaurants, auto repair and maintenance shops and small manufacturers — was integral to the success of STORE.
That’s one reason he started STORE University, a series of video modules aimed at helping STORE’s tenants succeed and grow more profitable. After all, if a tenant’s business goes under, that tenant is no longer paying rent.
Topics covered by STORE University include determining the value of one’s business, calculating return on equity, picking businesses to invest in and evaluating financing options.
Since stepping away from STORE, Volk, who splits his time between homes in Arizona and Huntsville, Ala., has continued to write extensively on and teach the same principles that fueled his own success. He also serves on several boards, including that of Banner Health, the largest health care provider in Arizona.
On the topic of business, he’s written for many publications, including CEO World, European Business Review, MarketWatch, Chief Executive and others.
“I’ve been a student of business models my whole career,” Volk says. “And over the years I learned you could make them simpler and simpler, and they’d still be just as effective.”
And that’s the idea behind the book, “The Value Equation: A Business Guide to Wealth Creation for Entrepreneurs, Leaders & Investors,” which breaks down the characteristics of successful business models, demonstrating how wealth is created for owners and investors.
The book garnered over a dozen awards in 2022, including the BookFest, International Impact, PenCraft and New York Book Festival awards.
For Volk, a successful business is intrinsically virtuous, benefiting its customers, its employees and its owners and investors alike.
“All businesses solve a problem for customers and no business can succeed without lots of customers,” Volk says. “For a business to succeed, it has to be a win-win-win proposition.”
Chris Volk is pictured with his book, “The Value Equation: A Business Guide to Wealth Creation for Entrepreneurs, Leaders & Investors,” which offers insights on how to improve business models to create personal and collective wealth.
Top Photo by Blair Bunting