Fernando Gonzalez: A Storekeeper’s Rise

Fernando Gonzalez opened his True Value store in 1989. He said it survived the earthquake only because it was a new building at the time.

Local entrepreneur and philanthropist Fernando Gonzalez, 66, recalled the story of his father fleeing across the border in 1914 into the U.S. to escape the seemingly endless Mexican Revolution, as his brother, who was just 15, returned to fight.
“A lot of people, including my father, left during the revolution,” Gonzalez said. “He came to the U.S. and never went back to Mexico, but his brother, my uncle, did fight and then came back up here to Hollister to tell us what was going on in the war.”
His mother was born in Brawley. After marrying his father, they came to Hollister in 1946, where his father worked in the fields after following crops from Colorado to Michigan. Along the way, they had eight children.
“My oldest brother, Albert, who was in the army, was killed in Vietnam in 1968,” Gonzalez said. “One of my brothers, Joe Paul Gonzalez, who is the county clerk, and a couple of my sisters live in Hollister. And I have a brother who lives in Orange County.”
Growing up in Hollister, he and his older brothers and sisters went to Sacred Heart, then San Benito High School.
“I lived on South Street and walked all the way to Sacred Heart,” he said. “I was real young and there wasn’t that fear there is today where people are concerned about what might happen to their kids. I went to high school from ’64 to ’67.
“One of the things I remember growing up in Hollister is during Halloween the veterans would show movies,” he said. “We didn’t have a TV, so that was a big deal. And then they would give us a donut with a Nehi soda. That was really enjoyable. And then you’d go out trick or treating, which you could do very fast because the town was so small.”
As a junior in high school, he told his counselor he wanted to take college prep classes. His two older brothers had attended Gavilan College and encouraged him to go, too. For whatever reason, his counselor told him he could not switch his courses. One of his brothers told him to ignore the counselor and just go to the classes.
“That’s what I did. The teachers didn’t say anything, so pretty soon I was into the track of college prep,” he said. “Then I went to Gavilan. My first year I was voted student body treasurer and my second year I was voted student body president.”
Gonzalez added that his brothers, Raul and Joe Paul, had also been elected student body presidents. While attending Gavilan, he thought he might go into teaching. After Gavilan, he attended the University of California, Berkeley where he graduated in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Then he received a fellowship to attend the University of Southern California to study for a master’s degree. He completed all but six elective requirements.
“I came back to Hollister for the summer and there was a building for rent,” he said, “and I thought it would be a good place to start a business. I negotiated a deal for the building and started my first business, Gonzalez Market. So I never went back to USC.”
By 1974, the business was thriving and he wanted to expand into a bigger grocery store, also called Gonzalez Market.
“At the time, the first building had belonged to the Lust family and it had once been a grocery store,” he said. “Bill Lust had sold it to another family that did not succeed and closed it. The building was empty when I came along. I operated it for about four years. Then I wanted to build a new building.”
But there was opposition to his new project. He said it took two years of fighting the city government with help from neighborhood supporters.
“I went to different people who were interested in improving the community and one of them told me I should run for city council,” he said. “I ran in ’78 for councilman and was elected. In those days there weren’t districts, so it was councilman-at-large.”
The newer, bigger Gonzalez Market opened in 1978, and the first store transformed into Gonzalez Liquors.
“Right before I opened the second store, I also opened a grocery store in Tres Pinos,” he said. “I had that for two or three years and then sold it to one of the sons of the Lust family, who had the original store on San Juan Road. Richard Lust ran the business and his brother, John, had control of the building.”
Gonzalez operated a second grocery store on San Juan Road for about 14 years. It is now Hollister Super. Then he opened his True Value store in 1989.
“That was the year of our big earthquake,” he said. “It survived because it was a brand-new building.”
Gonzales described his work ethic as, “Get the job done because nobody else is going to do it.”
“I tell them when I’m not around and they do the job by themselves, that shows they have the initiative to do the job without someone on their backs telling them what to do,” he said. “I got that from my father because he was a real hard worker. He was still working when he was 82.”
Somewhere between all his grocery store acquisitions, he bought the Smokehouse Bar (now Cheap Seats), and the Acme Bar next door. He described the two as “working men’s bars.”
“My father ran the Smokehouse Bar,” he said. “He was also a card dealer, which is what he did for the last 15 years of his life. Before I bought it, he would rent a table and have card games. Both bars had licenses for gambling, and I ended up with both of those licenses.”
Then there was the laundromat, The Wishing Well, and connected convenience store, as well as a gas station in San Juan Bautista.
“I was very busy then,” he said. “A couple brothers bought the gas station, tore it down and put up apartments.”
Reviving the west side
Having had businesses on the west side of Hollister for many years, he said he is excited that a study has been done to redesign Fourth Street with new landscaping, sidewalks, gutters and widening.
“That is a good thing that’s going to happen on that side of town,” he said. “People are going to want to develop along the road. If you go out there now, you’ll see that most of the lots are empty and have been for years. I think we’ll have more commercial development and apartments out there. The idea is to mix the two. I’m very much in favor of the whole project because if you’re a visitor coming into town that way you see a lot of blight. This improvement will be the impetus for change.” Gonzalez said he believes Hollister’s recent growth has been, for the most part, a positive.
“They’ve been growing from in outward and that makes a lot of sense,” he said. “In many communities they leapfrog. Here’s the center of town and they let somebody build out here or there and it’s a mess. Hollister is taking the view of building from the center out. Unfortunately, the new general plan of the county has opened up certain areas, like out on the 25 they’ve indicated a big area for study for homes. I say, why would you do that? Why would we leapfrog into an area that’s all agriculture? It makes a lot more sense to let the city grow out.”
He’s not quite ready to retire, but he does want to take more time doing what he loves.
“I do like to travel,” he said. “I went to China in 1980, and Cuba around 2000. Those trips made me really appreciate living in America with its values and freedom. In Cuba, for example, I wanted to see the university in Havana. A guard there told me I couldn’t. We got to talking and he told me he was a trained engineer and was very educated. I asked him why he was a security guard. He said that’s what he had been assigned to do.
“The market system we have gives people opportunity if they want to take it,” he said. “The person driving the taxi in Cuba was a doctor. He made more money driving a taxi than he did as a doctor. I saw a guy on a bike selling pastries. I asked him how much he makes selling pastries. He said he was on salary. Even a guy riding a bike selling pastries is working for the government. It’s hard to comprehend that almost every single person was working for the government. That’s what gives me the feeling that if you want to be an entrepreneur and write your own destiny, this country is the place to be.”
He said that while he is not exactly a socialist, he does favor programs that provide food for children.
“Kids who go to school hungry aren’t going to learn if their bellies are empty,” he said. “Those kinds of school programs I’m for. But some of the stuff that is done in the name of helping people is just wrong. You should do things that incentivize people.”
Businessman on mission to help
Outside of business, Gonzalez is passionate about philanthropy.
“Around ’92, I got really interested in nonprofits,” said the local owner of True Value and other businesses. “Right now, I’m the chair of the Community Foundation (he was one of the founders), which is an organization that is essentially the saving bank of the community.”
He explained the foundation is designed to create long-term endowments for individuals and organizations to put money away that will never be spent and only the income that is generated will be used to benefit others.
“As directors, we can never spend that (donated) money,” he said. “One fund generates about $50,000 a year and goes to children for medical assistance if their parents or government agency can’t pay for it. A lot of people want to leave money to the national nonprofits. We try to tell people that they can set up a fund here and determine where the money will go. Individuals can set up funds or endowments called donor-advised funds because they advise us how to spend it. As a board we want to follow their wishes, within reason, because we also have to follow the law.”
He said in ’92, the foundation began with “a couple thousand dollars” and has since grown to more than $8 million.
“In California, there may be 80 community foundations, but only about 43, including us, have gotten national standards,” he said. “Locally, we’re proud of what we’ve done because we set it up as a ‘forever organization.’”
He said part of the foundation’s mission is to help other nonprofits.
“We donate a lot of money to other nonprofits in grants,” he said. “We also do training for the executive directors and board members of those nonprofits.”
Gonzalez is also chair of the Community Service Development Corporation, a nonprofit housing organization.
“The mission is to develop properties to sell and have rentals for low-income people,” he said.
He volunteers for both organizations and said even though most nonprofits are run by volunteers, over time many close up.
“They’ll have a good mission, but they just don’t have the people to keep them going,” he said. “What I’ve seen is we have very talented people on both organizations. We screen people to see what they have to offer as we recruit them. If you think about it, for an organization to grow from a thousand bucks to $8 million is pretty good, especially since we’re a small community.”

Leave your comments