Darnell Smith is Florida Blue’s market president for the North Florida Region.
Can you please briefly tell us about your background?
I was born and raised in the Lincolnville neighborhood of St. Augustine. People say we lived in poverty, and I think we did. But my mom did an awesome job taking care of my siblings and me. She was a single mom, and she worked as a cook six days a week, 12-plus hours a day. Regardless, she still did an incredible job instilling values in me that have shaped who I am.
I went to Florida State after high school at age 17. My mother passed away when I was a freshman. I had nowhere to go. Home had literally disappeared. 86 St. Francis Street was no longer home, and so, I really had to think to myself, what do I want to do? Losing my mom, I blamed my faith and challenged so many things for about a year. I woke up one morning, however, and said, “Get over yourself, kid. If you don’t like what’s happening, go do something about it.” That day, I committed to not going to the streets and finding something that would allow me to be successful in society and give back.
I was really, really good at math, so somehow, I landed on electrical engineering and got a degree in that. After graduating, I ended up working for Maxwell House in Jacksonville, where I worked for three years. They had a downsizing, and I was the odd man out. I applied to Florida Blue and got a job. I didn’t expect to stay long, but I loved it and ultimately did stay. I will be celebrating 29 years with the company in April.
I’ve been married for 30 years to my wonderful wife, who I met at Florida State. We have three kids.
As market president for the North Florida region, what are your primary roles and responsibilities?
I have an awesome job in that I have an opportunity to help with our margin and our mission. When you look at all of North Florida for Florida Blue, I have the accountability for our operating income, our revenue, how well we’re perceived in the market, brand, you name it. Then, when you look at the mission side, it’s about how well we give to the community and help the community to achieve its goals in taking care of our neighbors. Whether it’s Hurricane Michael in Panama City or whether it is hungry or homeless kids in Duval County, we’re a company that cares enough to be able to give and help. I get to help make those types of decisions about us giving and what we give in North Florida. It’s an amazing opportunity. I’ve been in this role for about five years. The previous 13 years, I led our service organization. I loved that job as well.
What makes Florida Blue different?
I think we’re a company with soul. With a heart. I’ve had a chance to work under three CEOs: Bill Flaherty, Michael Cascone Jr., Bob Lufrano and Pat Geraghty. I didn’t really know Mr. Flaherty that well, but I really got to know the previous three, and it was always about the individual, the person, the employee, the customer. It’s always about how do you help individuals reach their potential, be the very best versions of themselves. And so, I believe it’s a company with heart. We care. We work hard to take care of the community. We take care of our employees. We try to do right by them in that regard. We make tough calls. We’re willing to make certain that it comes down to putting the individual first and doing the right thing first, realizing it might not allow you to be as successful as you want to be. But knowing that in the long-term, it really is the right thing, and it’s going to help in the long run, because you’re living out all the things that you said were important.
We understand you’re active in the community yourself. What are you involved with?
I sit on the board of the Sulzbacher Center, of which I am the chair of the Health Services Committee. I also sit on the board for Cathedral Arts Projects. I’ve served on the JAX Chamber board, of which I served as the chair in 2017. I also love mentoring kids and helping kids.
When you reflect on your life, what do you attribute to your success?
First and foremost, I am a recipient of incredible blessings by my lord and savior. Second, I had an incredible parent who literally instilled incredible values in me that I call upon every day. The third component is almost as important as the other two. There were times in my life where I hit a crossroads, and I could have easily made a wrong turn, and someone stood in the gap, almost as an angel. For example, when my mother passed away, there was a professor at Florida State. He told me I could stay at his house. He said, “I’m not giving you any money, you can’t use my car, you have to buy your own food, but you’ll always have a place to come and stay.” This man gave me a place to go. It blew my mind that someone could be so caring. He had no reason and yet he did it. Examples like that shaped me to be able to say, all you have to do is be there for people. Those are the three things that I can now look at and say that’s why I am who I am.
What are you most proud of in your life?
Being married to a wonderful, wonderful lady for almost 30 years. It’s going to sound crazy, but it’s not the norm. I broke a cycle. It was intentional for me to break that cycle. I’m really proud of that. We really, really love each other. Also seeing my kids graduate and even go further than me, from the standpoint of their education, was something that made me extremely proud. And then recently, to see my oldest son get married, as well as my niece, who is like a daughter to me and getting married later this year, those are amazing experiences to see. I’ve also been proud to see kids I’ve mentored also be successful.
What do you enjoy most about living on the First Coast?
I love the people, I love the climate. We’re a big city with a small-town feel. There’s so much to do, so many places to go. You can pull up at almost any table and be welcome here in Jacksonville. You just have to want to be part of it. You can also work hard and really make it here. You can reach out and help people and see the fruit of your labor in that regard. It’s like a playground for me. I love it. As I look back on it, if I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t change one thing. It would be Jacksonville, Florida time and again.