Willard Payne Jr. is a Jacksonville business and civic leader who moved to Northeast Florida in 1975.
It was almost 40 years ago when the former Chicago public school teacher and administrator was awarded several McDonald’s franchises in Jacksonville.
Payne became the first African-American franchise operator in the city and opened four stores, creating more than 500 jobs. He later sold the franchises and runs several businesses.
He is president of Northern Florida Recruiting and Consulting Services, which provides professional recruiting, consulting and lobbying.
Payne, 72, also was the first in Jacksonville for many other roles. He was the first African-American to serve on the Jacksonville Port Authority in 1979 and the first to join the Rotary Club of Jacksonville in 1988 and to serve as its president in 2003-04. He also served as the first president of the 100 Black Men of Jacksonville.
He’s also been appointed to city and state panels and commissions.
A New Orleans native, Payne earned his bachelor’s degree in education from Xavier University and holds a Master of Science degree in Education, Administration and Supervision from Loyola University in Chicago.
Payne started college at 15, completing high school early after skipping the fourth and seventh grades in grammar school.
You came to Jacksonville almost 40 years ago. In what ways has Jacksonville changed the most?
It’s changed tremendously. I can remember first coming here and applying for some things that I thought I wanted to do and I was not met too favorably.
But I think that being here and being involved with the community has given me opportunity and opened doors for other people.
You’re considered one of the most pivotal change agents in the city. How did it come about that you broke barriers in so many institutions and organizations?
I’ve always kept a very calm demeanor, even when there have been major obstacles. I think the people I’ve dealt with have been able to pass that on to other people to say that Willard is a great guy that can make things happen and work with the community on both sides.
What are some of those obstacles?
I can remember being denied membership in a club that I will not mention. I can remember a friend of mine was an insurance agent who would have a golf tournament at another club in town. He asked if I would play the tournament and I said sure.
I played in the tournament and the next week he called me and said, “we were told if we bring you out there again, we can’t have the tournament” at that particular club.
Those are the kind of things that I saw and I don’t think there is a club in this city where you don’t see African-American members now.
How did you react at the time?
I was upset, but not having been in the city for that long, I didn’t think that I would have that much of a support group, so I kept it kind of quiet and left it under the radar.
One of the things that I did, I was in Mayor Godbold’s office because Jake had an appointment for the port authority. I shared with him (about the club) and he called this club and said, “This is Mayor Jake Godbold. Willard Payne told me you denied him membership.”
And the individual on the line said yes and that he will not be a member of this club, and Mayor Godbold said “this is the mayor of Jacksonville.” And the other end said “we don’t care who you are, it will not happen,” but eventually it did. So, those are the kind of exchanges that I had to go through.
It hasn’t been that long ago.
I know, but it’s still a city that I like and I’ve enjoyed the relationships that I’ve had and I think that I’ve opened doors for a lot of people and I’m very happy about that.
What brought you to Jacksonville from Chicago?
I worked for the school system in Chicago for 14 years. One of my neighbors had a McDonald’s restaurant and being a Louisiana native, in Chicago, it was a little bit cold for me.
I was looking for a way to get back south. I started looking into businesses and franchises, especially at McDonald’s. I talked to that neighbor who had a franchise and he said he would arrange for me to interview at the corporate office.
They had two opportunities for African-Americans — one of them in Dallas, Texas, and one in Jacksonville, Florida.
You had four stores. Where were those?
The first store was at U.S. 1 and Edgewood, which was my heart. The second store was at Interstate 95 and Eighth Street. The third store was at Edgewood and Broadway — many people don’t even know there was a McDonald’s there — and the fourth store was on Park and Roselle.
Are those still operating?
The first two are. Many of the movers and shakers on the Northside opened their doors to me and many of their kids have worked for me. I’m still in contact with most of those kids and families.
I also had a rule that if you worked for me, and you went to college and your grades were good, I never took you off payroll. You could come home and work a day if you wanted to, you could work for the entire summer and not have to worry about it.
Many of the parents today thank me for what I did and I have some young people who have stayed in this city and have done very well. Some are attorneys, some doctors and another person who does not live here, but went on to Wall Street and is a managing director now, with Morgan Stanley. She worked for me right out of Bishop Kenny (High School) and then went to college.
And she’s the famous Carla Harris.
That’s Carla Harris. That’s exactly right.
Another classic story — one young man that I thought would be a really good management prospect was working. We had developed a slogan that if you could lean, you could clean, so none of my employees could just stand around and lean on the counter.
This young man was telling a female worker who was standing there that you can find something to do and she said, “no, I can’t find anything to do.”
He said look around, you’ll find something. She still was there for a couple of minutes and he said, “you see that broom over in the corner? Take that broom and go and sweep U.S. 1.” She immediately found something to do.
They ended up getting married. They’ve been married for over 25 years and when we see each other, we always laugh about that story.
How do you characterize your leadership style?
I try to keep a calmness where I don’t get excited about stuff because if I were to do that, or if I’d done that years ago, I don’t think I would have been able to do a lot of the things that I have been able to do.
As an example, and I’m not going to call this individual’s name either, but he’s a very well-known citizen in this city. He asked me to serve on his board of governors with the Chamber of Commerce and I told him that I was not going to do that and he asked why.
I said here’s a city that you business people and everybody want African-Americans to be members of the Red Cross, the United Way, all those charitable organizations, but when it comes to being a member of The River Club, no.
He said, is that right? I said yes. He said let me investigate that, let me look into it. He said, I promise that if you were to serve on my board, that in every chamber function, I will bring that up. And he did.
That was before the Jaguars came, before a lot of the major companies were here. I said to him, if major companies come here and they have African-Americans who are up in the organization, they should be allowed to be members of The River Club.
He said, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to put your name as W.A. Payne, not your full name. And that was the way we were able to get the membership through because a lot of people didn’t know who I was.
This gentleman has always been there and we’ve developed a great relationship.
When did you sell your franchises? What did you do then?
I sold a couple before that, but I was totally out in 1997.
I had some businesses at the airport, which we still do, my wife and I, and I had worked with some gentlemen in town here who said, why don’t you form a company that can do some consulting and lobbying? That’s the beginning of the Northern Florida.
What did you want to be when you were growing up in Louisiana?
Growing up, I wanted to be a doctor, however, when I found out that you had to deal with dead bodies, it changed my mind immediately.
The Chicago experience, my superintendent was an older Jewish man who had visions that were far ahead of his time. My job away from the school was in a district office. We had 20 schools in the neighborhood, and I’m talking about in the ‘70s, that were a mix of African-Americans, Hispanics and European whites. I learned to deal with all those different kinds of people and it’s carried me a long way.
At my first school in my first job, my principal told me that I had to go and get a couple of neighborhood gangs off the playground. If I were to not do it, I could be fired for subordination.
I talked to the guy whom I thought was the leader and said, look, guys, you love to play basketball, I see you out here, I like playing basketball, but if you stay out here, the principal is going to call the police and you’re going to have trouble. Let’s work a deal.
Instruct all your guys that when the kids come out for recess, tell them to get off the playground and let kids play.
They said, what are you going to do for us? I said, in the winter, on Fridays, you can bring all your boys in from noon to 4, and I’m going to open the gym up for you and you boys can play in there.
They said, you’re going to do that for us? I said yeah, but you have to keep your end of the bargain. I was at that school for nine years and we never, ever had a problem.
That’s the way that I’ve operated and functioned. When I came here, and opened stores, I would go into the community and I would talk, especially to kids who I thought were going to be problems for us and our employees.
I went to them face-to-face and said look, if you or your boys are thinking about robbing or coming in and hurting somebody, don’t come to our store because we’re going to hire people from the community here.
It might be one of your family members, it might be a friend, so don’t do it.
And, again, never had a problem. I think that when we talk to people, you get respect and you can get a lot of things done.
I have to ask about your friendship with Dr. Frances Bartlett Kinne. You were following the same paths through the clubs such as Rotary, and The River Club, because she, around the same time, became the first woman who was able to join. Do you stay in touch with her?
Yes. We call ourselves “the bookends” because we would be the opening for a lot of females and a lot of African-Americans.
The Florida Yacht Club, in 1993, had rejected the nomination of a potential African-
American member and that caused a lot of internal decisions at the club. You and another prospective member then were invited, but you declined that invitation. Do have any perspective you can share on that experience?
What is missing is how that individual, or why that individual, was invited to join. The people who had put his name in for membership are outstanding people that I’m still friends with. They had done that on a positive note and it just got caught up crazily, but the individual that we’re talking about, who was denied, was a friend of mine. I could not find it in my heart to accept something like that when he was denied and how would that make me better than him? That’s the reason why I couldn’t do it.
I think at that juncture I made the right decision. I think the club has opened up for everybody and that’s good, that’s great.
Have you ever considered running for public office?
Yes, I had. The only office that I’d considered was tax collector and I knew Lynwood Roberts well and Lynwood stayed on so long that it was past the time that I thought I would have done something.
Have you been approached to run for office?
Yes, on many occasions.
Obviously, you have said no.
I don’t want to.
I am a person who loves to compromise and make decisions and move forward. In a lot of instances, if you do that, you’re considered weak or that you just don’t know how to do business.
You did spend a lot of your time running businesses. You’ve weathered at least five recessions. What is the environment like for entrepreneurs and small business owners?
It’s tough and I think that it’s changed somewhat. I can cite you an example, again. When I had the McDonald’s early on, I was talking about getting financing for the second store and was talking to a banker. The banker at this particular time said, you’re going to have to put up enough of the $100,000 to open the store.
I knew that my colleagues, when they went to second stores, they didn’t have to do that, so I interpreted that as a racial kind of thing, too. I left that bank and went to another bank and had a great relationship.
Your advice to small business owners would be?
Make sure you have all your facts in line, investigate, do your research and make sure you have your financing in order before you step out there.
What would you like to share about your family?
I am currently married to Pam Payne. Between us, it’s the second marriage for the both of us, we have three kids and six grandkids, and they are wonderful.
The two girls are in Jacksonville, our son was a police officer in Baton Rouge and we have three grandkids here in Jacksonville and three grandkids in Baton Rouge.
What else would you like to share?
I love this city and it’s been good to me and I hope that I can do some things that can make people both appreciate and enjoy being here in this city because I’ve enjoyed it.
First Coast Success: Willard Payne
The Daily Record interviewed Payne 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 is scheduled for broadcast this morning and will replay at 8 p.m. on the WJCT Arts Channel or online at wjctondemand.org.