First Coast Success: Delores Kesler, business pioneer
Delores Kesler is an entrepreneurial pioneer in Jacksonville.
She was a 37-year-old single mother when she launched a company from her kitchen table in 1977. From there, she created Associated Temporary Staffing, which became AccuStaff, then Modis and then MPS Group, eventually becoming Adecco Group North America, part of an international company.
She led AccuStaff to an initial public stock offering in 1994 and was told at the time she was the first woman on Wall Street to take a company public.
Kesler, who just turned 73, retired from the company in 1997 and started another, a capital investment venture.
She's in business with her two children, Mark Pass and Deborah Pass Durham. She's married to retired Duval County Judge Morton Kesler.
The Daily Record interviewed Kesler for "First Coast Success," a regular segment on the award-winning 89.9 FM flagship First Coast Connect program, hosted by Melissa Ross. The interview took place at the station at 100 Festival Park Ave. along the St. Johns River near EverBank Field.
The interview is scheduled for broadcast this morning and will replay at 8 p.m. on the WJCT Arts Channel or online at www.wjctondemand.org. Following are edited excerpts from the full transcript.
What prompted you to start a company?
We always think we can do things better than others. I was working for International Harvester, always giving my boss suggestions. He said, "You should have your own business." I was in my late 20s. How am I going to accomplish this goal?
How did you decide temporary staffing was the route to take?
I had an aunt that was in the health care business. The staffing industry was growing, so it was the right time for the right industry and that has a lot to do with success.
You took the risk when relatively few women were able to do so. Can you share the story about the $10,000 loan?
I had a business plan where I needed $50,000 and I went to every bank in every nearby county and they all explained to me how I could not get a loan. Finally I found a contact that I went to high school with who was president of a bank in Clay County and he loaned me the ($10,000) money on his own signature. He was very nervous about it. He said, "Please don't let me down." It was very successful from the start and six months later I paid him back the $10,000 and he loaned me the $50,000. So it worked out well.
Why wouldn't the others give you the loan?
That would not happen now. I was a woman and they asked me, "What happens if you have another child?" I had two children, so they were concerned about my ability to have children and run a business and pay back a loan and also the fact that I was female and did I have what it took to run a company.
Now the company has become Adecco Group North America.
Right, it is part of a very, very large international organization.
That was a pretty good risk for $10,000.
Oh my, it paid off many times.
What motivates you?
Watching other people develop and grow well. I really get a big kick out of watching someone have a dream, be able to fulfill it, or decide that that's not their dream.
You invest in businesses. What do you look for?
I look for drive. I look for a workaholic. I was talking to a young lady yesterday who said, "Am I going to be successful?" and I said, are you a workaholic? And she said, "How do I know if I'm a workaholic?" I said, if you're a workaholic, you know you are. I said I have never met a successful business person (running a) large or small company that wasn't a workaholic, because it just takes that much commitment.
Have you written a book?
I've started two or three books. There's a book on my computer, so when I leave this place, that book will be there hopefully for someone to discard or delete, but yes, maybe I'll finish. I'm much more a person who likes to be engaged with activity versus the isolation of writing, so when I write, it's like, what am I missing while I'm in this room writing?
Any working titles you can share?
Yes, I do have a working title: "From the Chicken Farm to Wall Street." That's the true story of where I began and where I was fortunate enough to end up. I grew up just north of Jacksonville in Dinsmore and I did, actually, grow up on a chicken farm. The rural life was very, very good. Four-H (Club) was very important in my young life and helped me a lot though leadership camps.
As for Wall Street, you took your company public, served on boards of public companies ó PSS World Medical and The St. Joe Co. Reflections?
How did you end up here from starting at zero and ending up running a billion-dollar company? It's a building block and you either have the inclination to pay the price, to do the homework, to stick with that or you don't, and I found it absolutely intriguing, the whole process of growth.
You were a captain of industry.
That's a pretty strong title, but everyone there has earned their stripes in some way. I just found that the most interesting thing when we would go to public directors' meetings nationwide and in New York was to find out the background of people, where they came from, how they got to be where they are and what they really brought to the table in making sure our public companies were run well and disciplined.
You continued to be a pioneer.
When we went to Wall Street, everyone said, "Who's going to go to Wall Street for you?" I said, I'm going. I'm bringing some good people with me, but I'm going. At that point, which was in '94, it was rather unusual to see a woman chairing a company, taking it public in Wall Street.
What was that like?
It was wonderful because I had smart people around me and the market was receptive to the industry.
You're a decision-maker, but there are a lot of people who worry about their decisions and sometimes don't even make decisions. How do you do that?
By nature I make decisions quickly. When I watch somebody who has difficulty with it, I don't have much patience. Making decisions is taking all the information that you've gathered in your life and putting it into your internal computer and the answer comes out. When I see people who have difficulty with that, I think it's because they haven't done their homework or they don't trust their own instincts. Once you have a couple of successes, then you do trust them.
Tell me about the companies you're involved with now.
They're young companies, they're entrepreneurial companies. That's a very enjoyable process to watch, to be with
someone who has grown something already and is ready to take it to another level and to be part of that decision-making process and giving them a sounding board.
What's the name of your organization and what does it stand for?
Adium. My son came up with that name. "Helping others" is what it really means. It is a very diverse company with a lot of different interests. My two children are involved in it. There's something very rewarding about working with members of your family, whether they're children or now grandchildren, and watching them pursue their dreams.
You were nominated to be the first woman to chair the JAX Chamber, but you were taking AccuStaff public, so you did not take that role. Would you reflect on that?
That was a decision I had to make because chairing the chamber is a very responsible role. How has it changed? I think obviously people are more open to female leadership, which is wise.
Did you ever think of running for public office?
Right after I retired, I had a lot of people pursuing me to run for public office and I thought that is the last thing I wanted. I'd just gotten out of the limelight. Looking back, maybe I should have, but maybe I should have because you always look at public officials and say, I could have done it differently. Obviously at my age, it's too late to start down a new career path. But I do admire the people who make that sacrifice and we have some very good people making that sacrifice right now. It's something that I probably would have enjoyed, but you can't do everything in life.
What position do you think you would have enjoyed serving in had you taken the chance?
At the time when a group of people met with me and asked me to get involved in politics, it was to run for the (U.S.) Senate and that would obviously be a good place to start if you were going to reach out from the community and have a say from the outside coming in.
I don't know if I would have been a good candidate for mayor. I know how important it is that our local leadership is vital.
It's consensus-building. I think we're doing a combination of bringing all that in right now, which is good.
So mayor, governor, I don't know.
That's such an important role too, and we live in a state that is so important nationally, internationally.
So I'm not going to look back and say I should have run for governor, but it probably would have been an interesting process and my life would have gone in a different direction.
Did you seriously think about running?
Well, I did. I had a group of people that came to me and I didn't say no the first five minutes. I said let me think about this and then I spoke with members of my family and they said, "Have you lost your mind?" That kind of got me back where I needed to be.
Can you talk about your granddaughter (Peret Pass), who has made a name for herself as chair of the Florida Federation of Young Republicans and vice chair of the Young Republican National Federation?
I'm now known as Peret's grandmother and Deborah's mother. I no longer have my own identity, but that's OK.
It's great to watch Peret with her passion for politics and Deborah with her passion for Wolfson Children's Hospital and Hope Haven (Children's Clinic). There's a rewarding feeling when you watch someone that you have either held in your arms or given birth to and say OK, they've become their own person and their mission in life is different than mine, but they really do have a mission. They are making a difference.
That's what I say to all my children and grandchildren. Make a difference, a positive difference in whatever you do and don't let me tell you what to do with your life.
How many grandchildren do you have?
Mort and I together have four children and we have eight grandchildren. The oldest grandchild is 25 and we have two 4-year-olds.
You also are a mentor and led a foundation to provide mentors. What was your message?
When I mentor young scholars and budding entrepreneurs, I always leave them with one thought. Don't be afraid to dream and dream big because sometimes dreams do come true. I am a perfect example of that.
What's next for you?
I'm a spiritual person, and I get up in the morning and I say, oh God, what's in it for me today? I say take me to where I need to be today. It's very easy for me to get head over heels involved in a lot of things. I'm trying to be very selective about what I do. I do want to cherish every day so I'm trying very much to say where is this day taking me? And where does someone need me today?
What else would you like to share?
I am very proud of where our community is right now. We've gone through a lot of ups and downs and gyrations of finding the right people and I think that process is in place.
I am just glad that I am here to watch the city grow and develop and become something that I wasn't even sure we would achieve when I was growing up here.