Dr. Don Panoz | Words to Live by

by Benjamin Harrison

Written in Collaboration with The Cognitive Creative

To honor the legendary and create a legacy is something rarely done in the private sector. 

It takes a great deal of passion to work hard enough to foster, execute, and preserve ideas, and Dr. Don Panoz was a man of great passion. From humble beginnings, Dr. Panoz spanned the globe as a pioneer in the pharmaceutical, hospitality, and motorsports industries. He amassed a fortune, dined with dignitaries and movie stars, earned an honorary doctorate, and became widely known for his business prowess and his net worth. Sadly, we lost Dr. Panoz in September of 2018, but we can learn from his life, his triumphs, and his rules for success in business. If you had the opportunity to meet him, one rule was greatly evident:

“Leave it better than you found it.”

At the time of this interview, Don Panoz was a vibrant and lively 83 years young. His mission was to leave things better than he found them; he did that right up until the very end (only a few months after this article was first published). That day, in the spring of 2018, Dr. Panoz was sitting in his Braselton office, dressed smartly in a suit and tie. He was, in spite of his exceptional status, genuine, warm, and welcoming.

The Memories That Made Him

His office served as a time capsule of his storied life. He enjoyed surrounding himself with mementos and certificates of appreciation and achievement from his successful careers (note the plural); they reminded him of all the invaluable and transformative human connections he had made throughout his lifetime. From a weathered painting of his father as a young man in boxing regalia to his beloved snooker stick wedged in a corner, crowded with stacks of artifacts from a life well lived, Dr. Panoz’s office reflected the versatility and open-heartedness of the man. With Dr. Panoz, there was no pretension and nothing ornate or ostentatious. Quite simply, he was the billionaire next door. 

Dr. Panoz was also a gifted storyteller. He delighted in recalling the moments that shaped him and helped build his dreams. From treasured moments hearing about his father winning featherweight boxing titles to his time in the Army and beyond, spending an afternoon with him was like taking a step back in time to trace the moments that made him. His children were raised on tales of their grandparents in the old country (Italy), as he explained how their migration to the U.S. paved the way for all the privileges they would come to know. While he had many photographs displayed in abundance around his office, his words and sentiment painted a clearer picture than the images themselves.

The Man Who Shaped a Region

Dr. Panoz was best known in North Georgia as the founder and long-time owner of Chateau Elan Winery and Resort. Chateau Elan sees thousands of visitors each year for both wine and golf. The idea for a winery came from a glass of muscadine wine and Dr. Panoz’s keen observation of the native grape and its ability to thrive in spite of Georgia’s often-rigid clay soil. “I brought some experts over and asked them if we could grow grapes, and they said ‘hell yes,’” Dr. Panoz recounted with a sideways smile. And grow grapes, they did! Chateau Elan is the first winery of its kind since prohibition in North Georgia.

Though Dr. Panoz paved the way for the more than 20 wineries that dot the North Georgia Mountains today, his vision for the area was much broader than that. He hoped to bring a new way of life and appreciation for all of Georgia’s innate beauty and natural wonder. His efforts and imagination reshaped the region’s tourism profile. 

Discovering a Lifelong Passion

As a boy, Dr. Panoz was educated at Greenbriar Military Academy in Lewisburg, West Virginia, before joining the United States Army. Like many other military institutions, Greenbriar operated on a demerit system. On occasion, Dr. Panoz would have need to work off demerits. Rather than walk boring laps around the flagpole, he would often choose a service. One of those services was to gather the golf balls at the neighborhood course where the golf pro on staff was none other than the now legendary Sam Snead. In that simple act, and through the association with Snead, Dr. Panoz became enamored with the class and spirit of the sport. It was a seed that would sprout and grow to eventually forge friendships that would lead to historic moments in the International golf world.

While the resort and winery were sold, Dr. Panoz retained ownership of The Legends Clubhouse and, prior to his death, executed plans to renovate and upscale the property all with his passion and love for the essence of the sport. Golf was undoubtedly in his blood. There was something about the finesse of the game that intrigued him. Much more than driving a ball across a well-manicured green, there was the unmistakable contrast between the delicacy of the technique and the sometimes unforgiving conditions of nature. At the same time, he greatly appreciated that just minutes from the bustle of downtown Atlanta, he could stand in exquisite silence and feel the warm breeze on his face as he readied his swing. The atmosphere around Legends is artfully infused with a certain verve that is reminiscent of the mind that brought it all to life. 

Meager Beginnings

When Dr. Panoz retired from his iconic and revolutionary pharmaceutical company, the Ireland-based Elan Corporation, he already had plans to build a hotel. Dr. Panoz and his initial partner Mike Puskar, began their historic careers in pharmaceuticals traveling the West Virginia turnpike in an old Pontiac Bonneville and sharing “less than resort quality” hotel rooms. From his meager beginnings, Dr. Panoz became the youngest president of a pharmaceutical company in the United States, and as the pair led the industry in the production of gelatin capsules, Dr. Panoz traveled more and more. Always observant, he made mental notes of what worked well in the hospitality industry as well as what was detrimental. Those mental notes were put to great use when Dr. Panoz and his wife Nancy built The Inn at Chateau Elan. What better to pair with a winery and luxurious European Inn than world-class golf courses springing from that seed so long-ago nurtured? Golf was always part of the vision for Chateau Elan.

The Legends Comes to Life

Dr. Panoz’s early association with Sam Snead paid dividends when the idea for The Legends Course was formed. The Legends Course emulates the favorite holes (worldwide) of legendary golfers Sam Snead, Kathy Whitworth, and Gene Sarazen. Dr. Panoz’s friendship with Sarazen served as inspiration for the preservation of “the spirit of golf” within the community that surrounds the courses and resort area.

Besides a love of golf and everything the game represents, Gene Sarazen and Don Panoz have a lot in common. They both have an Italian heritage and the subsequently abbreviated names that sometimes come with immigrant families. Dr. Panoz’s father was born Eugene Panunzio. As a champion featherweight prize fighter, he found it difficult to fit Panunzio across his robe and became Gene Panoz.  Similarly, Sarazen, born Eugenio Saraceni, encountered prejudice and difficulty in spite of his nearly miraculous skill on the course, and he, too, changed his name.

“Gene Sarazen was one hell of an ambassador for golf,” Dr. Panoz said. “He was an absolute gentleman. They called him ‘The Squire,’” he continued. Sarazen was a prodigy who won two major championships by age 20. Dr. Panoz’s eyes sparkled with recognition as he explained that Sarazen embodied the spirit of golf. Sarazen’s skill, devotion, attitude, appearance, and commitment to the heart of true competition without politics were at the forefront of Dr. Panoz’s memories of him. Those characteristics and principles are what both inspired and guided his vision for the rejuvenation of The Legends Clubhouse. He knew that would be the best way to honor his long-time friend.

Honoring the Greats

“Sarazen’s Den,” a gathering spot in the upstairs area, hosts a billiard table and highlights “The Squire” with furnishings and décor befitting the gentleman who hit “the shot heard ‘round the world” at Augusta National Golf Club in the spring of 1935. Still one of the most famous shots in golf history, Sarazen played a major role in the history of the Master’s tournament. In 1935, Gene Sarazen won $1,500 for besting Bobby Jones. At the culmination of the Master’s Tournament in this day and age, the winners are awarded upwards of 11 million dollars.

While some of the renovations to the club never came to fruition due to the death of Dr. Panoz, his desire to build something truly beautiful, a physical tribute to a sport that has captivated people all over the globe and continues to expand in popularity, was absolutely achieved. 

Sun Realty Group, LLC founder and broker Ben Harrison, remembers Dr. Panoz fondly and is grateful for the vision that allowed him and so many others to build careers and businesses because of Chateau Elan. He recounted, “30 years ago this coming May, I met Don Panoz as an eager young agent. My involvement with Chateau Elan was a launch pad for my Real Estate career and instrumental in my decision to open Sun Realty Group. Panoz’s concept of greatness and expansion for the area that honored the essence of the game was evident, and he inspired me to show up for the Chateau Elan community in a way that best represented his goals and ideals, Definitely promoting ‘The Subtle Difference of Excellence’ he often spoke of.  It’s in some part, due to Panoz, that I am the Real Estate professional I am today.  I feel fortunate to have known him and am indebted to him for setting the bar so high and creating a beautiful community for me and others to work and live in.” 

A Standing Tribute

The Legends club itself is a true and accurate revival of the golf greats, a memorandum of the purity of the game, and the return of the principles and grace with which the legends of golf played. It’s Dr. Panoz’s final standing reminder for all to “leave it better than you found it.” 

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