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Columbia owner talks overcoming debt, resilience in commencement speech

Richard Gonzmart encourages graduates to remain steadfast when facing hurdles. "I have a gift. I think differently. If someone says something can’t be done, I say, watch me."

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  • | 5:00 a.m. May 23, 2023
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Columba owner Richard Gonzmart told St. Leo graduates that after the company overcome financial issues in the 1990s "I promised God I would dedicate my life to helping others in need..."
Columba owner Richard Gonzmart told St. Leo graduates that after the company overcome financial issues in the 1990s "I promised God I would dedicate my life to helping others in need..."
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Tampa restaurateur Richard Gonzmart, fourth-generation owner and caretaker of Columbia Restaurant, recently delivered a commencement speech at St. Leo University in Pasco County. 

Speaking to graduates and their family and friends May 13, Gonzmart — whose great-grandfather, Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, opened Saloon Columbia in 1905, serving workers of cigar factories in Ybor City — talked about his struggles in school as he reordered letters, making reading difficult. As a running back for his high school football team, “I transposed my numbers,” he told the graduates, according to a St. Leo statement. “I didn’t know whether to go this way or that way.”

Gonzmart was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADD when he was 43, which gave him an understanding of how he thinks. “I have a gift. I think differently. If someone says something can’t be done, I say, ‘watch me,’” Gonzmart said — to cheers from the crowd.

When his father died, Gonzmart said, he wasn’t prepared to take over the family business and discovered the company owed $278,000 in sales tax. He worked with vendors and others as he paid the debt. “I give you my word and my handshake,” he said.

Through his hard work and diligence, the company grew to 2,000 employees. When the pandemic hit, “we served 9,000 meals to our staff and their families,” Gonzmart said. “Take care of your employees. Who am I without them?”

There are eight Columbia locations across Florida, including locations on St. Armands Circle, St. Augustine and inside the Tampa International Airport. Other concepts in the company include Cha Cha Coconuts, Ulele and Goody Goody. Among his many awards and accolades, Gonzmart was named a Business Observer Top Entrepreneur in 2019. 

A lightly edited version of his St. Leo commencement speech follows:

I am honored to be with you today at your commencement from one of the finest Catholic universities in the United States and to offer a few remarks.

Congratulations to all of you.

A few stories about my journey:

I struggled as a student at Tampa’s Jesuit High School and at the University of Denver.

One of my biggest regrets was that I never graduated from college.

I left college because I felt I had already learned everything I needed to know after attending my very first class, “Introduction to Hospitality,” taught by the dean of the hospitality school, Douglas Keister.

Dr. Keister said, “If you count the hours in the week you work, you better find another job.”

After two years of college, I decided to get married — on Sept. 12, 1973, to my childhood sweetheart, Melanie. We spent our first year of marriage studying in Madrid. Many said our marriage would never last. Well, we are celebrating our 50th anniversary this coming September.

In May 1974 after studying in Spain, I told my father I was ready to join the family business. I knew the restaurant was struggling and living on its past glory. I knew that the restaurant was not staying relevant with the expectations of the diners of that era.

After my father died, on Dec. 9, 1992, I found out I inherited an upside-down company. In 1995 our family business faced a fiscal challenge that many would tell me we could not survive, that bankruptcy was in my future. I became the CEO and president. I prayed to God to give me the courage, wisdom, and strength to save the family business.

I met with each of our suppliers and even the state of Florida Tax Revenue (department.) I was brutally honest, and each of them believed me since I was so open about our situation.

I promised God I would dedicate my life to helping others in need and to assist the education of our youths and adults. That is why I am here today.

In second grade, my teacher told my mother, in my presence, that I wrote backwards, transposed my numbers and that my brain worked differently than other students. I felt confused and hurt listening to her comments about me as a student

In the midst of our business crisis in 1995 my primary doctor scheduled me for an appointment at USF’s school of psychiatry, where I was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia.

It was now very clear to me. I did not have a learning disability. Instead I viewed it as a gift from God. I see the world differently than most, I welcome challenges and when told something wouldn’t work, I knew I was on the right track.

Basically no one believed I should open Ulele in Tampa Heights. I followed my heart and intuition. Ulele became a success and transformed the neighborhood.

Never let anyone ask you to jeopardize your integrity. Always tell the truth, it doesn’t require a good memory. Remember those who stood by your side and be a loyal friend, partner, employer, client or customer. 

Each of you has a purpose! Find it and embrace it. Don’t let others’ opinions stop you from believing what you feel in your heart and your intuition. You know what is right and what is wrong and what you truly want in life.

Everything else is secondary.

Congratulations to all the graduates, now your real-life education is about to begin.

When you are as old as I am, you will realize you had so much more to learn after graduation and are glad you spent time learning each day.

Find a person you admire, discover their path and how they overcame obstacles, and the culture they created that helped them reach and realize their goals, their dreams.

Every morning while sitting at my desk, I read my favorite quote written by George Bernard Shaw to keep me focused. “Life is no brief candle to me. It’s a sort of splendid torch I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it off to future generations.”

Never, never, never give up! 

Congratulations graduates — be proud and wear your faith on your sleeve. 

And as I write in my email messages: “Here’s to life and embracing each day with gratitude, passion, compassion, empathy, integrity, love, kindness, faith and purpose!

Remember, The Lord gives perfect peace to those whose faith is firm. –Isaiah 26:3.


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