Orlando’s Resident Rainmaker
“Charlie Gray is truly an icon to our business community. We just don’t make them like that anymore. As for me, it has not been difficult to build on the tremendous foundation he established and the culture he created.”– Byrd F. “Biff” Marshall, Jr., Gray|Robinson president and managing shareholder
There are those who live through extraordinary times and then there are those who actually shape those times –who leverage their influence and their attributes to set a direction that unlocks a region’s potential and destiny. J. Charles (Charlie) Gray has been instrumental in guiding Orlando’s modern development as much as any one person and continues to bring sagacious and visionary leadership to the entire state.
Though he has never held an elected office, he has been central to the careers of countless politicians. As former Orlando Mayor Bill Frederick once said, “Charlie always realized you could have far more influence and get much more done working behind the scenes.”
The founding director and chairman of the board of Gray|Robinson, a law firm with over 270 attorneys in 11 offices across the state, has represented and negotiated with some of the most iconic companies that do business in Central Florida, and developed the reputation as one of the area’s foremost “rainmakers.”
Beginning to Make His Mark
Looking out from his 16th floor corner suite over Lake Eola, Gray can survey the same landscape he once explored growing up. But the Orlando of that era was a far cry from the booming metropolis it has grown into today. Gray’s father, also an attorney, not only gave him his professional direction, but a legacy of public service, what Gray calls “paying your civic rent.” His father served on the Orlando city commission for 14 years and held various civic positions. An aviation enthusiast, he convinced his friend Eddy Rickenbacker, the famous World War I ace who later became the president of Eastern Airlines, to bring the first commercial air services to Orlando.
Right after Gray married his wife of 58 years, Saundra, they moved to Gainesville, where he enrolled in law school and she did undergraduate work. It was an environment in which he flourished and where Gray honed his legendary people skills, making connections that would serve him for a lifetime.
Upon graduation, he wanted to work for one of his personal heroes, Max Brewer in Titusville. But as fate would have it, his father’s health was failing and he asked him to take over his practice in Orlando.
Searching for additional work, as the firm had declined due to his father’s health, Gray landed the job of city solicitor (city prosecutor), a part-time position paying $200 per month, by going to Judge John Baker and simply asking for the job. It was jumping into the deep end of the pool as he was, by his own admission, “green” and didn’t have a criminal law background. The position not only provided much needed income, it honed his legal skills and gave him entry into the city.
Gray would later serve as Orange County Attorney for seven years, during which he was involved in developing the county’s tourist development plan, launching the Orange County Convention Center and the Orange County comprehensive growth plan. But it was how he cashed in on his political support that would change the face of the region forever.
Number One, I Want …
In 1963, Florida Governor Farris Bryant signed the bill that created a university to be located in any of several counties in Central Florida, but without funding the project lay dormant for several years until Charlie Gray made a historic request.
In 1960, having successfully chaired the campaign for Doyle Conner for agriculture commissioner, Gray heard former Jacksonville Mayor Haydon Burns talk about his philosophy of government. After meeting Burns and his wife, Gray agreed to chair his campaign. “We put together an incredibly well-organized campaign, blanketing every precinct, which ultimately resulted in the power base of the state being shifted from Jacksonville to Central Florida. Burns, one of six candidates that year, won against significant odds and served as Florida’s governor from 1965-67,” Gray recalled.
After the campaign, Burns and Gray returned to Orlando together and on the way discussed the campaign Gray had run for Conner in 1960, during which Gray expressed his disappointment at how Conner had been unresponsive to his requests for legal referrals, though they remained friends. Gray recalled, “Burns processed that information and asked me, ‘What do you want?’ I replied, ‘Number one, I want a new university and an east-west expressway.’ I then made a couple of other requests about political appointments.
“Burns fulfilled every promise except one. When I called him about it, he replied, ‘Charles, getting a new university authorized and appropriated is not easy. I made a deal with House Speaker E.C. Rowell, who said he would get it done only if he got his best friend appointed as the state road board member. I had to make a deal, and I’m sorry about that, but the university was your first choice and that’s what I had to do to get it.’”
Gray concluded smiling, “It seemed like an excellent tradeoff.”
A Talent for Seeing Talent
Gray has always been admired for his ability to build consensus, an attribute he has employed in projects he has championed and the organizations he chaired. One of which was the Florida State Turnpike Authority, in which he was instrumental in getting an exchange between the Florida Turnpike and Interstate 4 – what many consider to be one of the key factors in the site selection for Walt Disney World.
It is also Gray’s down-to-earth, common sense approach that has won admirers and enabled him to build those bridges of consensus. Smiling, he confided, “We used to go to the University of Florida and interview the graduates who were at the top of the class. But oftentimes, they didn’t work out. We were advised, ‘Go interview and get people like you all.’” Adding, “It’s hard to find people with high intelligence, who are regular people
with good walking around sense. Mind you, we’ve built the firm on people with high academics – Robie Robinson graduated top of his class, but we value individuals who can relate to people and who work hard.
“I always ask new associates out of law school what their golf handicap is. When they tell me, I explain that if it goes any lower while they are working for this firm, they’re going to be fired. Gray|Robinson has always been a meritocracy and it works.”
Perhaps Gray’s greatest strength is his ability to recognize ability. As he put it, “The only thing that is really special about me is I’m able to find people who are special.” For Gray, the most critical talent search he ever conducted was his position at Gray|Robinson, explaining, “For a CEO, the most important responsibility you have is to identify your successor.”
C-Suite Affirmative Action
“We were all Gators, University of Florida alums, and I decided I would launch my own brand of affirmative action and hire someone out of FSU… I’m just kidding,” Gray said smiling broadly. “But I found this young lawyer from FSU who was really bright. Immediately, I knew he was something special, so I made him an offer, but I didn’t hear back from him; he was the first guy who didn’t take the offer we made out of law school.
“Then I ran into him in a local building; his name is Biff Marshall and I said, ‘Biff, what are you doing here?’ He said, ‘I’ve joined a small securities firm here in this building.’ I inquired, ‘Why didn’t you take the offer I made you three years ago?’ He explained his rational, ‘I wanted to be a securities lawyer, and you didn’t have a securities practice, so I went to the best securities firm I could find to learn the business.’ I said, ‘That’s wonderful; come with me now.’ He said, ‘You still don’t have a securities practice.’ I responded, ‘Come with me and I’ll build one around you.’ We usually build around unique and talented people; if you find the right people the direction is obvious.”
Biff has taken us to places I never would have. I was so disappointed when he didn’t come with us initially, he was a star; I knew it from the first time I met him. He was the means to the growth I wanted to see.”
Letting Go of the Reins
Some leaders can’t let go of control, but not Charlie Gray. “When I turned the firm over to Biff in 1992, I took off and went sailing for two months. I wanted him to be in charge. We [Gray and his wife] sailed to Europe and took part in the America 500.” Over 100 sailboats, including the Grays’ 54-foot Sea Gem, participated in the voyage that commemorated the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage by tracing his exact route.
“When I came back, everyone understood he was the managing partner. If anyone did come to me, I said, ‘Go talk to Biff.’ They might say, ‘He may need your advice,’ and I said, ‘If he needs my advice, he’ll ask me.’ Then added, he’s actually been managing partner now longer than I was.”
“I learned something out at my cattle ranch in Debary,” Gray said. “We had two miles of frontage on the railroad in front of my property. I found that at my driveway, I could get my Wagoneer right up on the tracks of the railroad and could take that rail line 17 miles out to Osteen to my other ranch. When I first started, if I thought the truck was going to fall off the tracks, I would grab the wheel and sure enough, it would fall off the tracks. But I wanted to see how long it would take to go off on its own. I soon realized if I took my hands off the wheel, the truck would stay right on the tracks by itself for 17 miles. There was one trestle on the way that went over a pretty deep creek and it took some guts to keep my hands off the wheel. I just decided to stay with it, and I learned as long as I didn’t touch the wheel, I stayed on the rails.
I don’t interfere with what Biff is doing; I just ride along and enjoy practicing law and some other projects, where I can do what I love, which is getting something done!”