For most of us, the concept of paying it forward began and ended with the credits of a Haley Joel Osment movie. For Miguel "Mike" Fernandez, it's a lifelong lesson.
Fernandez, who immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba at 12, started private equity firm MBF Healthcare Partners in Coral Gables in 2005, whose portfolio includes Navarro Discount Pharmacy, and a managed-care company, Simply Healthcare Plans. Simply Healthcare's ventures include a partnership with the University of Miami and Magic Johnson Enterprises to provide services to the HIV/AIDS population in South Florida. Over the years, Fernandez has given more than $125 million to causes focused on health care, education, and more.
His latest venture is documented in a new book, Humbled by the Journey, in which Fernandez and fellow writer Martin Merzer recount Fernandez's 508-mile pilgrimage along El Camino de Santiago, the ancient spiritual trail that attracts participants from around the world. The author's 2013 hike, with a pledge for each mile, led to more than $5 million for a children's hospital. The trek was filled with encounters that left lasting and life-altering impressions on Fernandez. "I've never done a good deed that I was not rewarded for, and by that what I mean is emotionally," he told New Times. "I receive more than the person I'm giving to.
Proceeds from the book's sales benefit The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, a nonprofit focused on early childhood education, development initiative and "universal readiness," making high quality health, education and nurturing available and affordable for all children between birth and age 5 in Miami-Dade County.
What began as a way to document his family's history for his children turned into a journey and collection of Fernandez's most important and inspiring tools for personal and professional success. We spoke to Fernandez about the book, business, and the power of human connection.
New Times: Why do you think you've had such success in business?
Mike Fernandez: I'm not a very well-known person, I've never tried to be one, but somehow you do get in the news for one reason or another, and if I do it's normally because of a company I've sold or acquired. But I have built all of those companies with the same mindset of doing good for the people that work with me and doing good for the people that we serve....I think you can take a whole different path to business where people do reward you by giving you their business, their hard-earned money, because you're providing a superior product, a superior service, and one that cares.
When we decided to get into the HIV/AIDS business, I was told that it was insane. I had already made enough money in my life that if it failed, it failed. But I didn't think it was insane. What I saw was that there was a stigma to that population. They were not receiving the total spectrum of care they should have received. We decided to create a business model that pretty much did not exist. And today, that company is being acquired for more money than I ever thought...
I'm of average intelligence, I'm no Ph.D., I'm not a rocket scientist. I do work hard, and I do respect the people that I work with. I've built 25 companies and I'm 62 years old; I sold my first company at 29. I could have retired then, I never did. I just kept doing things that I thought were right and were better than the competitors were doing it.
You say in the book it's easier to do something right than something wrong, something good than something bad. Most people say the opposite. How did you come to that conclusion?
It's what we feel. I have five children. When one of the does something wrong, immediately there's a level of tension that goes up in the room; they have to start thinking up excuses as to why they did A, B, and C, and they have to justify it and explain it. When you do something good, you don't have to explain anything, you let the act speak for itself....I think that doing good is what we're meant to do, and the more good you do -- it's gotta be better than crack cocaine. I've never done crack cocaine, but it's gotta be better. The reward you get from [doing good] is magnificent. I've been doing something for years that no one knows about -- giving away $20 or $30,000 somewhere in town. I kind of give it away the day before Christmas to people I see on the streets....It's almost selfish, that doing good can almost lift you. It's very uplifting. To be honest, most people don't see business people that way. A business person is a guy who pays you late so they can have their usual cash flow and they build a company, sell it, and keep it all to themselves, they don't share it. And I know that I could have never built any one of those 25 companies without receptionists, customer service reps, and salespeople, administrative assistants.
How did you and Magic Johnson meet?
First of all I don't know anything about sports....Pat Reilly has been a personal friend for many years, and Pat put us together. Earvin liked my idea about building a health plan focused on providing a whole continuum of care to people that have HIV or HIV-AIDS. And we became very good friends as a result of that. We're very much alike. I think we're both people persons....I think we both believe people are generally good. And we hit it off; had we not hit it off as persons I don't think he would have made an investment in our company.
What's been the most rewarding experience you've had helping someone?
When I was out of the army making $500 a month, I read an article about a young girl whose legs had been burned off in Brazil. I got her and her mom to come to the U.S., I put them up in an apartment, I found physical training for them and bought used orthopedics. This girl was able to walk for the first time... I had no money, I was 22 years old, making $500, and I managed to do this. All it took was asking. I asked somebody to give me money to bring her to the U.S., I asked Miami Children's Hospital if they would teach her how to walk, and I asked an orthopedics company if they would sell me some used orthopedic legs that could be adapted for a child. It was just the desire to do it, it wasn't that I had money to burn....I think acts like that get you hooked.
The one that's made the most impact [on me] is seeing how my kids have the same mindset. My children are doing what they see, not what they're told. I see them doing good things for good people. It's OK to get burned, once in a while somebody will take you for a ride, they'll lie to you and you give them something...that's OK. It's great to make mistakes. My greatest reward is seeing how my kids are carrying on the tradition of trying to help others. And by the way, my kids live on a budget...I want them to appreciate what everybody else has to go through in life. Most people do worry about a mortgage, car payments, school for the children. I think it would be a disservice for me to take that knowledge away from them by insulating them in a bubble where everything is taken care of for you.
Connecting with others is a huge part of your book. It seems like a simple thing to do. Why do you think so many of us aren't?
I'll go back to business because it's my life. The first time I did business, I was out of the army, moved to Miami, I knew no one. I did business with a man who I met in a nice bathroom when we were standing side by side peeing. Two days later we were waiting in the lobby of this building for the rain to subside, and that's how I struck a relationship with this man. A few months later, he offered to help me start a business...I talk often at schools, and I say "Guys, do you know the person behind you, the one to your right and left? The one in front of you? If you don't, you should." Because maybe it's not them, but it's their cousin, their father, their brother, who could be the key to the biggest life-changing event in your life. I make it a point that when I'm walking I always say good morning or good afternoon to people as they're passing by.
I've had transactions I've done that are in the billion-dollar range. When it comes down to it, more than 50 percent of the reason did the business with the people I did it with is because of the personality of the people...I've sold companies to companies who would've paid me less but there was an emotional connection to the people I was negotiating with. I think it's very important to understand people. I believe financial performance and financial statements validate a story, but a story has to be emotionally connecting....I think it's very, very important to connect emotionally and personally with as many people as you can. I do it on the elevator.... My challenge is every morning, how do I start a conversation when I get in? Most people don't do that.
I think evolution wants us to be social and in the world we live in, where there are high-rises and we close our doors and are isolated, there's almost no emotional need to connect but we should make an effort to.
What do you think is the most overlooked or underrated tool to gaining success?
We're told how if you try hard enough you will succeed. But what they forget to tell you is if you try hard enough, you will succeed after the 20th time. I believe adversity and challenge are a necessary companion on the path to success, on the path to our destination. If there's no adversity, there's no challenge -- we really don't appreciate it. I was offered a scholarship to go to a private school in New York City soon after I arrived from Cuba and my father asked me if it was because I had good grades, and I said no it's because I'm Hispanic. And he would not allow me to take the scholarship because he said I hadn't earned it. So I worked all through high school...I appreciate my high school education as much as someone would appreciate their Ph.D. because I had to pay for it.
There's a lot of lessons in your book for your family and for readers, but if you had to pick the most important one what would it be?
That you can be be good and still go good. I don't want to be remembered, and won't be remembered, by how much I've made. I want to be remembered by what I've given. If I can just touch and change one in a thousand kids, I've changed a lot. And I think I can do better than that.
In March I'm speaking at the University of Florida for two days, everything from ethics classes to business classes. In a few days I'll be speaking at the University of Miami and Miami-Dade College and Florida State shortly thereafter. I would've never thought I'd be doing this. This was supposed to have been a book for my kids and it turned out to be an unexpected journey.
The official launch of Mike Fernandez's book Humbled by the Journey, featuring the author and Magic Johnson on stage, begins at 6 p.m. Wednesday at MDC Wolfson Campus, Chapman Center, Building 3, 2nd Floor (300 NE Second Ave.). Online RSVP is available, but no attendees will be turned away at the door.
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