Serving for Social Good
Alumnus Senator Mel Martinez’s legal, political and financial career was successfully built on his mission to serve and make a meaningful difference.
In the early 1960s when Fidel Castro’s communist revolution took over Cuba, more than 14,000 Cuban children boarded planes to the United States – without their parents. They did so as part of Operation Peter Pan, a program set up by the Catholic Church to help children escape the danger and oppression of the new Communist regime. Among them was Senator Mel Martinez, who recently retired as JPMorgan Chase’s Chairman of the Southeast, the Caribbean and Latin America.
Martinez came to the firm more than a decade ago after a long and distinguished career in law and politics. He was the first Cuban American to serve in a Presidential Cabinet, as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under President George W. Bush, and the first to serve in the United States Senate. In the Senate, Martinez tried to work on a bipartisan basis and helped bridge gaps between political parties. At the core of Martinez’s more than 40-year career in politics and community service is a deep-seated desire to improve people’s lives and a commitment to making tangible progress.
“It sounds idealistic, but at the root of many people’s decision to play a part in public life is a desire to give back, and to help their communities and serve,” Martinez says. “With my background, especially, I have a real passion for giving back.”
Immigrating to the United States
In Cuba after Castro came into power, Martinez’s Catholic school was shut down by the government. After he turned fifteen, his parents worried that their son would be drafted into the Cuban military.
“The lack of religious freedom was really at the core of it, and it touched our family deeply,” he says. “I could see the fear and worry in my parents. It was a searing experience as a young boy, and it turned our lives upside down.”
Leaving Cuba was not a simple affair, but Martinez’s parents believed that the dangers presented by his departure were less than if he stayed. Besides, they thought their separation would be brief — Mel would come home after the unrest in Cuba had settled down.
In Miami, Martinez stayed in youth facilities, and then lived with two foster families in Orlando. The day before his sixteenth birthday, at the height of the Cold War, President John F. Kennedy announced a naval blockade on Cuba to keep away additional Soviet missile shipments, escalating tensions and making travel to the U.S. all but impossible. Martinez’s parents were stuck in Cuba.
He lived apart from his family for more than four years, learning English, graduating high school, then starting college. Finally, in 1966 when Martinez was 19, his parents arrived in the U.S. with the clothes on their back and no money. Martinez played the role of provider and interpreter, helping his immigrant parents adjust to life in the U.S. and assisting his father, who had been a large animal veterinarian in Cuba, find a job in his field.
Leading with compassion
After college and law school, Martinez worked as a trial attorney, counting many Spanish-speaking Floridians as his clientele. While in college, Martinez met his wife, Kitty, and they eventually started a family.
He was active in the community, serving on boards and commissions, including Catholic Charities. In the late 1990s, the political bug bit. Local leaders encouraged him to run for mayor of Orange County (Orlando), Florida.
“I was ready for a change,” he says. “I wanted to serve and be in the political world. But, not forever.” Martinez thought he would serve for four years if he won, then return to law. But the future held other plans.
Martinez was an underdog, but won with 60% of the vote. The same day, Jeb Bush was elected governor of Florida. Over the next few years as Jeb’s brother, George W., came to Florida to campaign for the 2000 Presidential election, Martinez got to know him.
When President Bush won, he tapped Martinez to serve in his Presidential Cabinet as HUD Secretary. “Our lives were changed dramatically overnight in a very good way,” he says. “It was a very exciting time.” He worked to alleviate homelessness and expand homeownership for minorities, embracing the philosophy of compassionate conservatism, using conservative concepts to help society.
He ran for Senate in 2005 and won, serving as a U.S. Senator from Florida from 2005 to 2009. He joined the Senate Banking Committee, among others, worked across the aisle with Democrats on immigration reform, and was proud to be the host of the “candy desk” in the Senate, a tradition since 1965 that encourages bi-partisan engagement (a senator whose desk is near a busy entrance keeps a drawer full of candy for Senate members).
Building business ties
After serving in the Senate, Martinez wanted to practice law again, and he joined DLA Piper as a partner. When the opportunity arose to join JPMorgan Chase as a chairman in Florida, Martinez was intrigued. He met with CEO and Chairman Jamie Dimon.
“And the rest is history, as they say. I knew I was joining a first-rate organization,” Martinez says.
Martinez helped significantly grow and expand JPMorgan Chase’s business in the Southeast, especially in Florida. He advised on branch locations, met with clients throughout the region, and helped build a strong local team.
In Florida, he was pivotal to growing the firm’s handful of branches to today’s nearly 500. The Private Bank expanded its reach, too, from just a few locations to a nearly state-wide presence. As head of the Market Leadership Teams in the Southeast, he helped spearhead many of the firm’s philanthropic initiatives.
“JPMorgan Chase in Florida today is now one of the largest philanthropists of any corporate citizens in the state,” Martinez says.
Martinez also advised firm leaders and clients throughout Latin America, and he served as a critical connection to Washington, D.C., helping the firm navigate political and economic challenges over the years.
Retirement and Legacy
Looking back at his career, in addition to his time at JPMorgan Chase, Martinez is most proud of the progress he made toward bettering the lives of school children, the homeless and minorities, and safeguarding the environment.
As mayor in Florida, he launched an afterschool program for middle school students. As HUD secretary, he crafted strategies to help homeless people get mental health care and drug abuse treatment, and he closed the gap for minority homeownership. In the Senate, he led efforts to limit oil drilling off Florida’s coast.
Martinez is also incredibly proud of his family. Married for 53 years, the Martinezes have three grown children, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Their son, John, is maintaining the legacy at the firm in his role at the J.P. Morgan Private Bank office in Orlando and as vice chair of the Central Florida Market Leadership Team.
In retirement, Martinez is continuing his work toward social good. He’s on several non-profit boards, including the National Endowment for Democracy, which focuses on strengthening democratic institutions around the world, and he’s involved with a new charter school that supports minorities.
In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his family, has taken up tennis again and is an “on call” carpool driver for his grandchildren.
“I’m keeping busy,” Martinez says. “I don’t want to completely fade into the sunset.”