Seeing his name on buildings is not what made auto dealer Frank Morsani one of the Tampa Bay area's biggest philanthropists.
Rather, living the American Dream is what made him want to share his good fortune, as well as the values that helped create it and the responsibility it brings, all of which Morsani writes about in a new memoir, To Be Frank: Building the American Dream in Business and Life.
"The capitalist system is pretty doggone good, and I wanted to tell the story we've been privileged to live," Morsani said during his first book signing, a reception last week at the University of South Florida's Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation. Co-authored with former Tampa Bay Times writer Dave Scheiber, To Be Frank is available on Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com and at bay area Barnes & Noble stores.
Over the years, Morsani, 84, and his wife, Carol, the high school classmate he took to the prom and married a year later, have donated tens of millions to arts, education and health organizations, including the University of South Florida (which is not their alma mater), Oklahoma State University (which is), as well as to the University of Tampa, Moffitt Cancer Center and the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.
"He works hard and gives hard," USF Foundation CEO Joel Momberg wrote in the book's foreward. "The Morsani name on a building is a seal of approval."
The biography tells of Morsani's journey from poverty in Arkansas to owning more than 30 dealerships nationwide through his company, Automotive Investments.
From his boyhood, he remembers the "sense of wanting to do the right thing" as he watched his mother feed the men who came knocking at the back door during the Depression. "Never the front door," he said. "Too much dignity." Never mind that nine family members were squeezed into a two-bedroom house without plumbing or electricity.
"We didn't have anything, but neither did anyone else," Morsani said. "We didn't know we were poor. Everybody was poor."
Morsani enlisted as a mechanic in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. Serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS Antietam shaped his management philosophy.
"The military teaches you to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator, and I managed my companies that way," he said. Decentralizing responsibility "permits many things you couldn't do if you were a micro-manager."
"Growing people to be successful" and "improving a person's price tag" has given him the most satisfaction, he said.
Later, Morsani supported his wife and two daughters as a master car mechanic for Ford Motor Co, The family moved to Tampa in 1970 when a Mercedes-Benz dealer fell ill and sought Morsani's help. A year later he bought the business from the dealer's widow.
Success is often a matter of timing, he said. He sensed Toyota's potential in the United States sooner than most. So in early 1973, when he opened University Toyota on Florida Avenue, he was the carmaker's sole dealer in Hillsborough County.
He also saw an advantage to accepting federal regulations on the auto industry.
"That's when a lot of people wanted to get out of the business, and I could get them out," he said. "I bought them out for nothing."
Other chapters chronicle the 10 years he chaired the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and traveled extensively on behalf of American business. "I gave five speeches a week between here and Beijing and Frankfurt in the '70s."
Morsani also shares his frustration about a personally costly, decade-long attempt to bring Major League Baseball to the Tampa Bay area.
In the latter third of his years, Morsani, who lives with his wife in Brooksville, continues his charitable ways, though he is now sought after as much for his business acumen as his philanthropy.
"We live our lives in thirds," Morsani said. "We learn, we earn, and then we return."