Mario Hernandez gives a farewell speech during a luncheon held in honor of his career. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation.
Mario Hernandez gives a farewell speech during a luncheon held in honor of his career. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation.

Mario Hernandez gathered one last time with members of San Antonio’s top economic development brain trust on Monday, but this time it wasn’t to talk strategy about bringing new jobs or companies to the city. This time Hernandez was the story as honoree and the center of attention at his own retirement celebration at the newly remodeled La Cantera Hill Country Resort.

Hernandez is stepping down June 30 as president of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation after a 26-year run as its top executive, 32 years in total at SAEDF, and a 40-year career in economic development that took him from Corpus Christi to Austin to San Antonio. His wife, Sherri, was on hand with him Monday. An audience of more than 200 civic and business leaders gave Hernandez a long standing ovation after he briefly spoke about a career that took him around the world more than once to recruit companies and bring jobs to the city.

The event included written proclamations from Gov. Greg Abbott and Mayor Ivy Taylor, a letter from Henry Cisneros, a former SAEDF chairman (2011-13), and remarks by five of the chairmen who have served since 1989, including current Chairman Wayne Peacock, USAA‘s executive vice president, enterprise strategy and marketing. Five other past chairmen were in the audience.

Hernandez’s career spanned much of the post-HemisFair modern era in San Antonio, a period book-ended by former Mayor Henry Cisneros, who held the office from 1981-89, and former Mayor Julián Castro, who held  the office from 2009-14. By the time Mayor Ivy Taylor took office in 2014 it was evident that economic development strategies would have to change as a technology-driven economy meant fewer corporate relocations and greater attention on incubating entrepreneurial enterprises, supporting workforce development initiatives and focusing on at-home job creation.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who served his own term-limited time as mayor from 1991-1995, recalled the beginning of that era in remarks he delivered at the Hernandez luncheon. Wolff recalled two key decisions: Cisneros’ creation of a city department focused on economic development, and the formation of the Economic Development Foundation, as it was then called, in 1975, an initiative driven by Gen. Robert F. “McD” McDermott, the longtime chairman and CEO of USAA who died in 2006. McDermott became the chairman of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce in 1974, and in the ensuing decades was at the center of just about every significant economic development initiative in the city. Cisneros dedicated his eight years as  mayor to economic development, Wolff said, and helped set the city on a new course of growth.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff praised former Mayor Henry Cisneros and outgoing SAEDF President Mario Hernandez. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff praised former Mayor Henry Cisneros and outgoing SAEDF President Mario Hernandez. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation.

Hernandez was recruited to the city a decade later in 1984 and was made EDF president in 1990. Retired Kronkosky Charitable Foundation Managing Director Palmer Moe, who served as EDF chairman when Hernandez was promoted to head the organization, praised his record of service, saying, “He knows how to get things done and he knows how to keep a secret.”

In his 26 years as the head of what is now the SAEDF, 422 companies were recruited to San Antonio or expanded their operations here, creating 97,124 jobs, according to Joe McKinney, vice chairman of Broadway Bank and the SAEDF chairman from 2001-2003. McKinney cited a UTSA Institute for Economic Development study that found the economic impact over the last 10 years will generate more than 100,000 jobs, $4.1 billion in payroll, and account for $15.8 billion in economic activity.

“This, my friends, is what Mario Hernandez helped to make happen,” McKinney said.

The highlights were recounted by several of the speakers: Toyota’s decision to open a truck manufacturing plant here in 2002, and the arrival of such companies as Johnson Controls, Boeing, Nexolon, KACO, OCI Solar, Petco, and others. No mention was made of the arrival in San Antonio of the “Baby Bell” Southwestern Bell Corp. in 1992, a stunning addition to the city’s corporate profile as it grew to become the global communications giant AT&T, and its equally stunning and unexpected announcement in 2008 that it was moving to Dallas. There was nothing that Wolff, then Mayor Phil Hardberger or Hernandez could have done to prevent the move, but it remains the most damaging corporate setback the city has suffered.

Hernandez focused his remarks on the work of colleagues, passing credit to others, and thanking his wife for supporting his frequent business travel and for the solicited and unsolicited advice she dispensed.

“It would be easy to cite Toyota as the crowning jewel of my career, and it was,” Hernandez said. “But seeing the change in the community and what the jobs have meant to individuals and their families was a tremendous reward.”

After another standing ovation, Sherri was presented with a bouquet of roses, Mario was given a new set of golf clubs, and people lingered to pose for photographs. It was the end of an era.

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Top image: Mario Hernandez gives a farewell speech during a luncheon held in honor of his career. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.