Darnell Smith cannot fathom that there are children in Jacksonville that have not seen a beach.
Growing up in St. Augustine, his sister made sure he visited the sand and shore.
“It was a small car, there were five of us, and she would find a way to get us there and back,” said the 53-year-old North Florida market president for Florida Blue.
It was more than just a day at the beach.
“It allowed me to see the world differently and to be able to dream,” he said.
That’s what Smith wants to do for the community and its children, to create a vision that allows the area to realize its opportunities.
At Florida Blue, he is responsible for the insurer’s business market growth and its customer and community engagement from St. Augustine to Pensacola, covering 36 counties.
Before that, he led a team of about 2,000 employees who served more than 3 million customers.
And this year, he chairs the JAX Chamber, comprising about 3,000 members in Northeast Florida.
That wasn’t his vision as he grew up, but it’s where his route took him.
“I didn’t even know what an insurance company was when I was a child,” he said.
Instead, Smith’s dream was to become an attorney because in his neighborhood, he said, everything he knew about professions came through TV.
“I remember Perry Mason. Perry Mason never lost a case,” he said of the legendary series about a criminal defense attorney, starring Raymond Burr.
Smith aimed for the profession because he wanted to use the money to take care of his mom.
“My mother worked six days a week, 12-14 hours a day, if not longer, and I just simply wanted to get a degree, be an attorney, and she would never have to work again,” he said.
He didn’t know how to do that, but his football coach at St. Augustine High School thought he could find a place for him to play college ball.
That didn’t work out, so Smith filled out applications for three colleges and Florida State University accepted him on a provisional basis and he started in summer 1981.
That fall, however, his mother died. “Then it was about my own personal survival.”
Smith was good at math, and that led to a degree in electrical engineering. Maxwell House Coffee Co. in Jacksonville hired him as a third-shift supervisor, which he thought would lead to an engineering role, but instead led to managing people and machines.
That prepared him for Florida Blue, which was looking for someone with leadership and technical expertise.
“It just worked. It worked out very well,” Smith said.”
That was 1990 and he was promoted through the ranks, becoming market president in 2013.
At Florida Blue, Smith strived to get to know the employees. While he didn’t know all 2,000 of their names, he made it a point to learn more about their lives when he could.
“Just to stop for a moment, ask them how things are going, not only with work but with their families and get to know them from the standpoint of what matters to them,” he said.
The reason, he said, was because the employees chose to work at Florida Blue. “For me, it was really important to make certain they felt good about the fact that they were going to be spending eight to 10 to 12 hours a day” at the job.
While collaborative, Smith described his leadership style as demanding. “I am not in any way used to failing, and so you know, Florida Blue loves to do the right thing for its customers. Our customers pay us to do well, and therefore we have to deliver,” he said.
To do that, he said, “you get the best team possible, and you make certain that they have the best environment to work in. And then you listen.”
He said his style is to make certain that people know what needs to be achieved, provide their input, become part of the decision and then move forward.
“Once we make that decision the expectation is that everybody, and I do mean everybody, is moving in that direction,” he said.
As a leader, he knows it’s his responsibility to make the call.
“There are times when you know what, I got to be the boss. And therefore this is the decision and we’re going to move forward with this. And we’ll live with it,” he said.
As JAX Chamber chair, Smith found himself a leading voice in support of extending the city’s Human Rights Ordinance to include the LGBT community.
“Not only was it the right thing to do because everybody deserves to be treated fairly, but also it is an issue that we really did believe threatened business in the long term,” he said.
Smith, who has been married to his wife, Celestine, for 27 years, wants to focus on making the city better for their children and grandchildren.
He understands his challenge.
“I think about people who live in poverty, and I think about children who are also in poverty. My biggest challenge is understanding how to do something about that, to make certain that I understand my reason for being on this earth, and that I have a particular role,” he said.
After his career, “when I hang up my cleats in the corporate locker room,” he wants to share all he’s learned.
“I want to be a mentor as much as possible, certainly to children, to help children be able to dream, to be able to go forward and enjoy and experience all of the wonderful things that make this world what it is.”
TITLE: Florida Blue Market President for North Florida Region
HOMETOWN: St. Augustine
EDUCATION: Florida State University, Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering, 1987
CAREER PATH: Maxwell House Coffee Co., supervisor/operations 1987-89; joined Florida Blue as a supervisor in 1990 and rose through the ranks
HOBBIES/AVOCATIONS: Coaching children’s sports; advocate for human rights, especially for children; travel
FAMILY: Wife, Celestine, married 27 years; two sons, a daughter (niece), one granddaughter
COMMUNITY: 2017 JAX Chamber chair; director: Sulzbacher Center, Cathedral Arts Project, United Way of Northeast Florida, Communities In Schools; Jacksonville Sheriff’s Commission on Progress
Best advice received:
I was advised many years ago to read a book entitled, “The Four Agreements.” It is about the four agreements every person should make with himself or herself:
Be impeccable with your word.
Never take things personally.
Don’t make assumptions.
Biggest career surprise:
Studying to be an electrical engineer but eventually becoming an executive in health insurance.
Spark of wisdom:
Believe in yourself. Even when no one else does, believe in yourself and your ability to shape your destiny and achieve your dreams.
First Coast Success: Darnell Smith
The Daily Record interviewed Darnell Smith 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 was scheduled for broadcast this morning and will replay at 8 p.m. on the WJCT Arts Channel or at wjct.org/ondemand.