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VOL. 37 | NO. 48 | Friday, November 29, 2013

'The book' on Francis Guess, humanitarian award winner

By Joe Morris

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When the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee named businessman Francis S. Guess its 2013 Kraft Humanitarian Award recipient, the only real surprise was that he hadn’t won it already.

Guess, 67, whose business career and personal endeavors cover everything from serving on the National Civil Rights Commission and Tennessee Commission on Human Rights to acting as Commissioner for the Tennessee departments of Labor and General Services under Gov. Lamar Alexander, is a lifelong Nashvillian who has worked tirelessly to improve his city and state.

He served in the U.S. Army during Vietnam, then earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Tennessee State University. He followed that with an MBA from Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management, then completed the Senior Executives in State and Local Government program at Harvard University.

In the business world, he was executive vice president of The Danner Company, a management and investment firm, and continues as executive director of the Danner Foundation, a family foundation that has contributed more than $10 million to education and health programs. He also owns and operates Helicopter Corporation of America.

More than 100 organizations have benefited from his input and leadership, and as he receives the Kraft Award he reflects on his lifelong pursuit of civil liberties, and what that means in a city, and state, where many still strive to be equal.

Q: When your name is mentioned, “equality” is almost always in the same sentence. How has that commitment shaped the various directions your business career has taken?

A: “I came up in the era of segregated cafeterias and sitting in the back of the bus, but was fortunate enough to see the metamorphosis of the South take place. Here, in 1960, some courageous students from Fisk, TSU and the American Baptist College said enough was enough. They instituted a movement that literally transformed America.

“I am very fortunate throughout my lifetime to know where we have been as well as where we are. It has been my goal to make sure that those who do not remember the past not be doomed to repeat it. That has been a lot of my focus.

“A lot of that is summed up from an attitude I got from Lamar Alexander. I called him one day about a program that I wanted to participate in that dealt with the African-American community. He responded by saying that he had no apprehension whatsoever to anything I could do in that regard, but he hoped I would never forget that, first and foremost, I was Tennessee’s labor commissioner.

“That gave me perspective – one bifurcates one’s role. As commissioner, my first agenda is to the labor laws that exist here. And if one is the labor commissioner and also happens to be black, then you bring that perspective to the table with you.

“That made me understand how important it is to separate those roles. In business, your first perspective is to make sure you have a return on the investment that shareholders make. And at the same time, recognize and assure that there is diversity and quality in the workplace, and to make sure that is always a function of what you are doing.

“Being able to keep both those roles separate, but also remember each of them, has been very important to me.’’

Q: Along those same lines, how does your ongoing commitment to civil rights and community advancement inform your own volunteer choices and other charitable works?

A: “When I become involved in a nonprofit organization, I make it clear to the professional and/or volunteer that I bring three perspectives to the table: I am going to be interested in how responsive your programs are to my community; I am going to be interested in how your personnel policies affect my community; and I am going to be interested in how you purchasing policies reflect on my community.

“When I go in, I advocate for those three points of view. If you don’t like it, don’t ask me to serve. I am a one-trick pony in this regard.

“At the same time, if you are responsive to those points of view, in terms of your overall program, I will die in a ditch for you. You can rely on me being a vigorous, faithful servant to your mission.

“After laying out that perspective to various nonprofits I have been involved with, I have never had one say they didn’t want me to serve.

“You have to be at the table, and your next responsibility is to show up. Invest your time, your energy and your resources into whatever it is. It’s been my experience that if you follow that course of action, people will be responsive to you and more sensitive to what your concerns are.

“I give Nashville credit for that. I don’t hold press conferences. I don’t care how things get done, or who gets the credit. That’s a very effective tool that I’ve been able to employ.

“There’s a line in the movie Argo, “If we wanted applause we would have joined the circus.” I think that has been a hallmark of what I’ve tried to do.’’

Q: Nashville isn’t the same city you grew up in, but there are still challenges. What’s your advice to civic and business leaders who say they want to level the playing field and provide advancement opportunities for all?

A: “There are various assets you can employ. Understand the history of anything you’re doing, and understand your community. Tap all the resources. People may not know each other, or how to get in touch with one another.

“If you can help them discover they have common interests and bring those together, you will benefit.

“Also, don’t ascribe to the idea that the glass is half full, and so you should be satisfied. There’s still half a glass. The challenge is that the glass is moving in the right direction.

“Make sure that it continues to rise. A rising tide lifts all boats, and if Nashville is going to rise then all the boats need to be in the water.’’

Q: How does winning this award, as well as the many other honors you have received, affect your ongoing efforts to educate and inform?

A: “The most important thing I can say is that I am humbled by it.

“I don’t do things for the applause. I am sensitive to the fact that my mother made it clear to her three sons that we were fortunate. There were challenges along the way, but we were able to meet those challenges.

“All of us were admitted to the ranks of educated men and women, and had doors of opportunity opened for us.

“With that in mind, she never wanted us to forget the Biblical admonition, ‘to whom much is given, much is expected.’ I’m not doing anything but responding to the expectations of me, and realizing that once I have had the doors of opportunity opened, then I can’t let that door be shut.

“I have the responsibility to drag as many similarly situated people through that door with me as I can. If I don’t, then I have failed in a gift that has been given.

“I once read about a competition at the Chicago Museum of Art, where a painting of a door with a funeral wreath on it was chosen for the top prize. The judges were intrigued by the technical aspect, as well as the title, which was ‘All I could have done, I did not do.’

“Ever since I read that, I have been sensitive to the fact that I don’t want a funeral wreath on my door that says that.’’

Q: What’s your advice to young entrepreneurs who see both obstacles and challenges in today’s climate?

A: “In the movie Patton, the general’s ambition was to confront Field Marshall Rommel on the field of battle. In the movie, he reads a book by Rommel on military strategy. The movie shows a battle that ends with Rommel in retreat, and Patton on a tank screaming, “Rommel, you beautiful son of a bitch, I read your book. It was very instructive.”

“So I tell people, read the book. If you want to do something, read the book.

“When I became the first African-American president of the Rotary Club, it wasn’t because I was black. I did the things any other Rotary president had done, or would do. I read the book.’’

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