'Retired' business leader continues to give back

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  • | 12:00 p.m. January 13, 2006
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by Douglas Fair

Staff Writer

When Delores Kesler retired in 1997, she was supposed to travel with her husband, retired Duval County Judge Morton Kesler, and spend more time with her family.

However, she started her own foundation, has gotten involved in other community efforts and is simply too busy to see the world right now.

“I have totally failed retirement,” said Kesler. “It’s easy to get caught up in the process of working with things that are measurable and not focusing on the personal side. I want to not fail and keep my life balanced.”

Kesler has always given back to the community, even when she had very little to give.

As an entrepreneur, business leader and philanthropist, Kesler realizes the importance of community involvement. She was 10 years-old when she began making visits to shut-in patients at the local nursing home, handing out candy she purchased with her own money. She would go with her mother, her friends and later by herself.

“I just felt like I was making a difference,” said Kesler.

She continues that spirit today as founder of the Delores Pass Kesler Foundation. Kesler said the foundation focuses on the development of youth in our society. The organization’s program provides scholarships to the University of North Florida, in addition to providing additional funding to established mentorship programs.

“It’s all about giving back,” she said.

Kesler said not everyone needs to donate money to make a difference.

“It doesn’t cost a thing to give back. Time is the most it takes,” said Kesler.

It’s also important to know where your support is going, she said, adding some people just write a check and feel they are doing good, but not all the money being donated reaches those most in need.

“It’s much easier to write a check and walk away. It’s much harder to give and ask where your support is going,” said Kesler, noting it’s important to make sure support given is going where it is needed.

She said her foundation works to peel back the “layers of the onion” that embodies the inner city. Her program has been focusing on Raines High because the school is in an area of town that has received very little support in the past.

“We picked the school due to the low number of scholarships they received,” said Kesler, adding that getting the students involved in the mentoring process helps convince Raines graduates who attend UNF to mentor a high school student — a process she hopes will continue through the years.

Working with the youth is important to Kesler. Mentoring helps to break the continuing cycles present in today’s society that exist due to lack of guidance or proper parental support for many inner-city youths.

Kesler said philanthropic efforts and showing people how to make a difference is something that comes from her upbringing.

“Someone must show them how,” she said.

Keslers says giving back shows the measure of a person and she’s frustrated by those who build up wealth and do not give back to the community.

“You must give back, this is the importance of mentoring a student,” she said.

Kesler, who is considered one of the most influential business leaders in Jacksonville, started off living a rather simple life. She grew up on a chicken farm in Jacksonville as the daughter of a budding entrepreneur who always had something on the side, but chronic alcoholism kept him from achieving success.

Kesler earned a college scholarship after graduating as salutatorian of her high school class, but decided to marry instead. The marriage didn’t work out, however, and Kesler returned to the working world to support her child, mother and younger brother. She managed to attend college, with assistance from her employer, and eventually graduated from Jacksonville University. While there, her boss told her she needed to start her own business.

In 1978, drawing on her background in human resources, Kesler took out a loan for $10,000 and started her own staffing agency — a move she likened to “jumping off a cliff with $10,000,” as women did not run their own businesses in the ‘70s. She said getting the loan proved difficult, to say the least.

“Twenty years ago I was a phenomenon, now it’s not so amazing,” said Kesler, who paid the loan off in six months and was rewarded with a loan for $50,000 — the original amount she was seeking.

The business eventually merged in 1992 with two other staffing companies and Kesler served as CEO of the company and on a four-person board that included three men.

“The idea of a woman serving as CEO at that time was an unusual concept,” said Kesler.

In 1994, Kesler took her company, Accustaff, Inc., public. By the time she retired Kesler headed a business with an estimated $2 billion in annual revenue.

Today, Kesler sits on the board of directors for the St. Joe Co. and PSS World Medical, Inc, in addition to serving as a consultant for the ATS Services, Inc., a human resource solutions company run by her son and daughter. She also focuses her time on developing young entrepreneurs through a venture capital fund she established for start-up operations. She is also involved with the Horatio Alger Association.

Kesler said the association was started 50 years ago and embodies the spirit of people who were born with nothing, built something and gave back to the community. An annual award is given to 10 individuals throughout the nation, with some past awards going to such notables as Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell and Ted Turner.

Kessler never dreamed when she was little she would some day run her own billion dollar company.

“I had a lot of support and lived the kind of life many wish for,” said Kesler. “I have not always been 100 percent successful, but by and large was able to do what was meaningful to me. I have had a great life and still have an awful lot to contribute.”

She looks at success not as a destination but as a road trip — a long road trip.

“When you think you are finally there, there is always another step to take,” she said.

This year, Kesler looks forward to one of her entrepreneurs taking their business public, while another one opens their own business. Her personal goal for the year is to do a better job of balancing her professional and family lives.



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