Gary Chartrand is one of Jacksonville’s most influential community leaders whose efforts can be seen on supermarket shelves, in Florida public schools and in the area’s nonprofit community.
Chartrand is the executive chairman of Acosta Inc., whose trade name is Acosta Sales & Marketing. It represents manufacturers in positioning their consumer goods in more than 120,000 grocery, club, convenience and drug stores across the country.
The Jacksonville-based company employs more than 37,000 people among 100 offices in the United States and Canada.
Chartrand, 60, also chairs the Florida State Board of Education.
A graduate of the University of New Hampshire, he and his wife, Nancy, have two children — Jeffrey and Meredith — and three grandchildren.
You joined Acosta in 1983 and by 1999, you had taken the company from a regional to a national presence and then Acosta branched into Canada. You wrote a book about it called “Unreasonable Leadership.” What do you mean by unreasonable leadership?
I wanted it to be a little bit provocative. I wanted people to say, “Who would follow an unreasonable person?”
Many years ago, I read a quote by George Bernard Shaw that motivated me. All progress is made by unreasonable people because reasonable people adjust to their surroundings, whereas unreasonable people rebel against their surroundings and produce progesss.
I absolutely believe that’s true.
He also went on to say that long-term happiness requires short-term discomfort. Sometimes our mind tricks us and we want to be in this reasonable, safe, comfortable place. Happiness doesn’t happen there, nor does progress.
One needs to get outside of their comfort zone, take calculated risks, overcome fear, overcome fear of failure and build self-confidence to be the person you are capable of being. That’s why I chose “Unreasonable Leadership.”
Is a person born as an unreasonable leader or can you learn to be one?
We’re all born with a unique set of gifts and talents. There are over 7 billion people in the world and there are no two people exactly the same. Our glory comes from being different than anybody else. Part of our journey is to find our passion in life. We can move ourselves toward unreasonable leadership.
You grew up in New Hampshire on a chicken farm and you decided that wasn’t what you wanted as a career. How did you find your way to Acosta?
I grew up on a chicken farm. My dad had a farm of about 20,000 chickens up in New Hampshire. I learned, at a very young age, what I didn’t want to do for the rest of my life, but I cherish what I learned there, that sense of responsibility, the work ethic.
My dad also instilled in me the value of a dollar, he taught me how to save, so those things really helped me a lot. I knew I didn’t want to be a chicken farmer, but I knew that I wanted to become successful.
When I graduated from the University of New Hampshire, I took a job with a large food company called Carnation, later sold to Nestle, and I spent seven years with them.
I was a sponge to learn everything I could about sales of food and marketing of food. I was transferred to Jacksonville in 1982 and spent about a year working for Carnation and I decided to take those skills to work for Acosta and later became an owner and later the largest shareholder.
Acosta is a major Jacksonville-based company. Would you explain what Acosta does?
Acosta was started here in 1927 by two brothers, Dan Acosta and Lou Acosta. The Acosta Bridge is actually named after St. Elmo Acosta, who is a cousin of Lou Acosta.
Acosta started out as a small business and it was a food brokerage business. They sold groceries in the Jacksonville area for manufacturers that were smaller in scope, but didn’t have the capabilities or the ability to build. They would outsource that activity to these brokerage firms. That’s the genesis of the business.
As we grew and developed more capabilities, we became more attractive to not just the small companies, but the medium-size companies as well. Eventually, the larger companies.
Our clients hire us to do their work and we sell their products at both the headquarters and retail, we merchandise at the store level and we also market their products.
We have about 1,800 different manufacturers that we represent. We’re fortunate to represent about 60 percent of the No. 1 and No. 2 brands that you see on your grocery shelves.
We have a food service division; a natural and organic business; and we’re in the military commissary business worldwide.
We’ve also built very strong experiential marketing, social marketing, shopper marketing and a lot of analytics around why people buy what they buy.
You turned a regional company into a national company on a fairly fast track. What was the biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
The biggest challenge to go from a regional company in 1998 and finish our national expansion in 1999 in about 15 months was financial — how were we going to grow and how were we going to orchestrate the financial back room and how were we going to finance the acquisitions.
When we started on our journey, we expanded our Southeastern footprint. When we wanted to go national, there weren’t a lot of open ears to lending us more money, but we figured out how to do it and we started with our first merger.
We did a tax-free stock exchange with a company in Chicago that had a footprint in the Midwest. That provided some opportunities that we hadn’t really thought about, and one was through a product conflict between Tropicana and Minute Maid.
We were representing Tropicana in the south and he was representing Minute Maid in the Midwest. Tropicana was not going to hear of that because that was their major competition.
Minute Maid saw it as an opportunity and we ended up resigning Tropicana and taking on Minute Maid, and they liked our idea, and provided $25 million in financing at a very low interest rate. Then Clorox provided us financing of $10 million and then the banks did finally loosen up and we were able to get a line of credit.
We were able to execute our plan, which was to buy companies and build that national footprint.
One of the lessons from your book is that you just need to ask because you never know what the answer is going to be.
If you don’t ask, you know what the answer is going to be. Being in the sales business, we say that when someone says “no,” they really mean “not yet.” You regroup and go back out and sometimes those doors open on the second or third try.
Are you a risk taker?
I am. I think a calculated one. There’s a great saying that you can’t steal second base with your foot still on first base. Change is something that is constant, right? Change is always going to happen.
The best leaders anticipate and plot out where the industry is going and what change is going to happen three, four, five years from now. You never know exactly, but you try your best.
You have to make moves to adapt to those changes so you can sustain your business model and if you don’t and you sit still, sometimes you get run over. We always say that you either go forward or you go backward.
If you feel like wow, I’ve finally arrived and I’m going to stay in this pocket of reasonable safeness, then I think you are probably destined to fail.
One of your challenges was merging corporate cultures or “Acosta-cizing.” What do you consider the lessons and challenges of a corporate culture?
People sometimes take the corporate culture piece too lightly. I think it is really profound.
I talk to people about this all the time and sometimes I hear “well, we don’t have culture” and I say, well, yes you do, everybody has a culture.
I always believe that when people put their hearts and their minds together to accomplish a common goal, they’ll succeed if the culture is strong enough.
Nothing is easy and so I think culture is really about behavior, it’s about how we treat each other, what’s acceptable, what are the values and the principles that stand the test of time and how do you get people to rally around that.
Any organization that has a culture of high expectations, high energy, high integrity, succeeds.
I don’t care if it’s a business or a church or a school, if you don’t have a high-performing, high-expectations, culture and work very, very hard to eradicate mediocrity, then you’ll never be great.
As executive chairman of Acosta, you no longer run the day-to-day operations. Would you talk about your role as chairman of the Florida State Board of Education?
The Florida Department of Education, which has about 1,400 employees, is headquartered out of the capital in Tallahassee, oversees the K-12 and the college system, not the university system, which is run by the Board of Governors.
We have a seven-member board which provides oversight to our commissioner and the department. We work with our legislators. Legislators pass the laws and the statutes. For the rule-making, they send it over to the Department of Education. We vote on a lot of the rules and we provide oversight to make sure that our system is running properly and that we’re advancing education for all our kids.
What are the major challenges and solutions?
Florida’s done a very good job over the last 15 years. It’s the 15th anniversary of The A+ Plan that (former Gov. Jeb) Bush put in place. What he brought forward was a new way to look at education and included accountability, high standards and assessments.
There was a choice element, which I’m a believer in as well. The more choices that we have to educate our children, the better off we’re going to be.
There are a lot of challenges. There are teachers’ unions that are somewhat protective of mediocrity. I’m not against teachers’ unions. I think teachers’ unions play a vital role. They are by statute the key negotiator for the teachers.
I’m a big believer in great teachers. Sometimes I get a little frustrated with the fact that it’s much more difficult than it should be to eliminate ineffective teachers. No child deserves to be taught by an ineffective teacher.
We did pass a law in 2012 that put all teachers on a one-year contract and I’m OK with that. I was on a 30-day contract in my business, so I had to perform or I wasn’t going to go forward.
Sometimes teachers don’t get paid what they should, and the good ones certainly don’t get paid what they should. I’m a big believer in pay for performance.
You and Nancy served as executive producers of an award-winning documentary. Would you share how that came about?
My wife, Nancy, and I — we just celebrated our 38th anniversary — were high school sweethearts, both from New Hampshire and she’s 100 percent Polish.
We went to Poland in September 2010 with four priests. One is a very good friend of ours from Poland and is at our church.
We ended up in Warsaw at a church and there was a priest buried out front and his name was Jerzy Popieluszko.
He was murdered in 1984 — he was 37 years old — for speaking out, pretty boldly, about the Communist regime. He said a monthly Mass for Poland when the solidarity movement came together and that monthly Mass was for the freedom of Poland.
He spoke the truth. His only weapon was the truth. He connected real well with the average person and his Masses kept growing in size.
The secret police weren’t sure what to do with him. They were kind of convinced that he was building an army of Catholics to overthrow the government. They captured him and beat him to death and threw him in the river.
He didn’t preach violence, he preached nonviolence, but he continued to ask the people to be free in their hearts and stand up for their rights.
I felt like he had a major impact at the grassroots level. I said to my priest friend that we ought to make a movie.
About a year went by and he called me and said “you’re not going to believe this, but there are two people in Jacksonville, Florida, that have bought the rights to a book that was written about Father Jerzy called ‘The Priest and the Policeman’ and they have the rights to make a documentary.”
They were a mile from my office. What are the chances?
My wife and I said we’ve got to do this. We’ve been blessed financially, so we became the executive producers. It’s being shown around the country. Martin Sheen is the narrator. The name of the movie is “Messenger of the Truth.” The website is messengerofthetruth.com
When I went to the church back in 2010, I had just finished writing the book “Unreasonable Leadership” and it dawned on me that Father Jerzy was in fact the ultimate unreasonable leader.
You, Nancy, and your children, Jeff and Meredith, started The Chartrand Foundation. What is its mission?
We started it in 2006. All of us had been involved in education. We’d been around Jacksonville and we had seen and witnessed the struggles of the public school system. Our foundation is singularly focused on education reform in the public school system. Our efforts are around bringing Teach For America here, the KIPP School, which is on the Northside, in fact, the highest-scoring middle school in Northwest Jacksonville.
My daughter, Meredith, works on early childhood education, and my wife and my son are working on better ways to address mental health issues in the school system.
Meredith is married to Mark Frisch, who formed Jacksonville’s first professional soccer club, Armada FC, the new North American Soccer League club.
He’s a great addition to our family and their family has quite a story as well. Harry Frisch, who is Mark’s grandfather, and 91 years old, he’s quite the unreasonable leader as well.
He’s got quite the golden touch with business. They’ve built a fantastic business (Beaver Street Fisheries) here in Jacksonville and in the Bahamas.
You have a lot invested in the community. What is your opinion about Jacksonville and where could it be heading?
I wish Jacksonville would read the book. I would hope Jacksonville would be more bold, take a little bit more risk and move outside of the status quo.
I love the city. I’ve been here 32 years. We’re blessed with so many natural resources, we have great beaches, we have a beautiful river, we have unbelievable golf, we have our NFL Jacksonville Jaguars here, and on top of all of that, a great climate.
But, we have some issues and there are some concerns. Education is one. I’m a big believer in Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. He’s making a lot of changes. He is an unreasonable leader. He’s bold, he’s taking risks and I think he knows exactly what to do. Hopefully we’ll be able to give him the political cover to be able to stay here long enough to effect change.
Certainly the big news of the day is the pension fund for the fire and police, and I would hope that we would be able to come together and make the right sacrifice on both sides to solve that problem.
We’ve got to figure out Downtown and make the right decisions about the port.
One of the things I’d like to see us do is to pass the human rights ordinance. We’re the only major city in Florida that has not passed the HRO and I don’t think that communicates what we really want here, and that is to be a diverse, accepting, non-judgmental city.
I hope that the people will come together and work to make sure that we do elect the right leaders, the bold leaders, those that have a vision to make this city as great as it possibly could be.
Everything that we see around our community is a result of our collective choices. Elections have consequences. We end up getting collectively what we decide we want.
Do you have any advice for our elected leaders or for those who might be considering running for office?
Be unreasonable. Get out of your comfort zone, push yourself to be the best you could possibly be, work hard, have high integrity, don’t lie to people. People see through that.
Do what’s right, don’t read the polls, don’t make political decisions — make the right decisions for the community.
What else would you like to share?
Try to reach your full potential. Realize that from the beginning of mankind till the end of mankind there’s only going to be one you. That’s pretty powerful.