Being in a family of eleven children, one is bound to observe service in action. And our guest of honor did just that! Meet Ray Hernandez, CEO, and President of the Huntsville-Walker County Chamber of Commerce. As Mr. Hernandez puts it, “I come from a small family of 11, nine boys and two girls, and I was #10! They said I was the favorite. I am not sure my siblings would agree!” Watching ten other siblings serve has instilled within him the deeply embedded value of serving others, too. And this he does with both great ability and intentionality.
You must have quite a story to tell, being one of eleven children. Please share a bit about your early years.
I was born and raised in San Marcos. My mother’s family has been there since the late 1800s and my dad’s family since the early 1900s. My early years bring back wonderful memories of family life in the beautiful San Marcos area. During summers, I remember riding bikes, going to the arcade, and swimming and floating the spring-fed river with my friends. We would play all day, then go home for dinner and chores. I remember trips with my dad to the dairy and chicken farms to purchase the weekly supply of 8 gallons of milk and 18 dozen eggs. We also visited Wuests and HEB stores for all the other groceries and supplies a family of 14 would need. My grand aunt (adopted grandmother) Beatrice lived with us.
My mother was very civic-minded. She always told us, “We have a debt to pay, and we pay it every day in some way by being a servant in the community.” She planted the seed of service in all of us. A few years ago, I made a list of over 150 projects and organizations the members of my family have been involved in over the years. We have achieved a wide variety of educational milestones, including Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorate degrees, and in careers including law, accounting, education, landscaping, and civic leadership. The common thread is we have all continued to serve our communities. I served in the U.S. Army like my Dad and brothers before me and our eldest son Michael after me. I think my mother’s wise advice was well-heeded. Her civic-mindedness has impacted all of us and the communities we live in for the better.
Can you pinpoint a specific time when you recognized your leadership abilities?
As a middle school student, my sister Rose and I would regularly go to the Henry Bush Head Start Center and read to the children. We were Head Start graduates, so being able to give back to the program was a satisfying experience. In those early years, I was not outgoing, but rather reserved. That is why I was so surprised when my San Marcos High School 9th grade DECA teacher, Mr. Jones, encouraged me to step into a leadership role and recommended I serve on the Student Advisory Committee. That was the beginning for me!
How did you take that great beginning and carry the ball on from there?
After high school, I worked in San Marcos for a couple of years before going into the Army. I served two years as a culinary arts chef and earned various recognitions. TheArmy provided opportunities for me to grow and learn, and I built several long-lasting relationships during these two years of service. My roommate Timothy Sereda remains a brother to me. After the Army, I worked as a sous chef in a couple of resorts and restaurants, then was hired as an executive chef and food and beverage director at age 24. While in this role, I managed a staff of 45 employees. Then I decided it was time for a college degree and returned to San Marcos, attending Southwest Texas State University (renamed to Texas State University-San Marcos).
During my college career, I was presented with many leadership opportunities. While working full time and taking classes, I still had the time and energy to serve as President and Vice-President of several business and advocacy organizations. I also learned the process and skills involved in writing grants through the guidance of Dr. Jaime Mejia, Associate Professor of English. These grants enabled us to bring speakers to campus, including Tino Villanueva, author of Scene from the movie Giant, and John Nichols, whose work includes The Milagro Beanfield War, The Magic Journey, and The Nirvana Blues. I along with Tacho Medellin and Dr. Mejia were instrumental in helping to establish a yearly Women’s Conference at the university. Southwest Texas State University is also where I met my life partner and best friend, Belinda.
Now, with a college diploma to hang on your wall, share with us the next step in your career journey.
Within months after graduation, I was asked to become President of the San Marcos Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. We worked on economic and tourism projects, which helped me to understand business and how it relates to the community it serves. I next served as Human Resources Director for Target. This enabled me to get actual experience with the retail business, and I served there for five years before taking a position with Enterprise Rent-A-Car. The goals and tenets of this company are focused on ethics, a topic that speaks volumes to me. Our parents taught us to treat people fairly, with respect and dignity. This aspect of serving is a seed that took root and has grown with me through my career. I hope to continue to nurture it well!
After 13 months with Enterprise, I got a call in 2007 to go to Kyle, Texas, to serve as President of the Kyle Area Chamber of Commerce. Each step of my career has been fun and has always challenged me to continue to learn, to apply what I have learned to new roles, and to foster new relationships. These values were put into practice in this new position, and I continued to see good things happen. I was part of a team that helped bring Austin Community College to Northern Hays County, and to influence the establishment of the largest hospital in the area, Seton Medical Center Hays. The Chamber, along with several partnerships, oversaw the successful $2.9 million bond project for roads.
That takes me to 2013, where I began serving as President of the Chamber of Commerce of Lewisville. During this tenure, we helped pass the largest bond election in the history of that city. We also played a very active role in encouraging the move of Mary Kay Cosmetics’ research and development and manufacturing from Dallas to a new $110 million facility in Lewisville. Always ready for a new challenge, my next move was to join JL Powers & Associates, a consulting firm with branches in Texas, Washington, DC, and the Midwest. The goal of this company is to build relationships between businesses and communities and to provide relationship building and guidance to companies, enabling a solid platform for growth.
During this same period, in November 2016, I started my own LLC, “Ray Speaks Out.” This avenue of professional speaking has enabled me to train leadership within organizations, teaching them how to tell their stories. My intro is always, “Hello. My name is Ray. I am from a small family of 11, and I’ve been telling stories all my life. I hope I can help you tell your story, too!” It gives me great satisfaction to help improve the situation of others, which will increase their own opportunities for success.
You made your move to Huntsville in June 2019, another new opportunity for you! Tell us about your career move to our fair city!
I have been extremely excited about this move! Huntsville reminds me of Kyle in that it is a smaller city on the verge of expansion, especially as we watch the growth of I-45 and Sam Houston State University take place. I experienced this same phenomenon in Kyle as I-35 was expanded and understand the challenges when a smaller city is compelled to take on greater responsibilities that automatically present themselves. As more people move to the area, businesses must meet greater demands, and services must expand. This impacts the entire area, both Huntsville and Walker County as a whole. Having experienced this in Kyle, I have the historical knowledge of what is on the horizon.
Additionally, Walker County is unique–there are more historical markers in Walker County than in any other county in Texas. This rich past must be preserved as a new industry comes in and growth takes place. It is human nature to be cautious about change, and change will occur because communities never stay the same. We have a wonderful leadership team who understands that, as change does take place, our role is to guide growth with knowledge, wisdom, and a deep appreciation of this community. The Chamber must work hard to remain relevant in the life of our business community and help provide networking and new opportunities for each entity. We work for our members to further enhance the quality of life here. One Team, One Voice will continue to be our guiding theme. In good times and trying times, we are in this together.
You are busy! Are you up to the challenge of finding time for a hobby?
My family, my wife, four kids, and Yorkie love this area and have enjoyed exploring all that it has to offer. As far as hobbies, I still enjoy cooking and trying out new combinations of cultural favorites. I also love to read. My favorite author is Cormac McCarthy who wrote, among other titles, No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, City of the Plain, and The Road.
I would like to share one last story I hope says something positive about my perspective on business and life. While serving in the Army, I was charged with getting the MREs (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) to 60 men during a downrange maneuver in the Rocky Mountains. I heard a rustling behind me where the MREs were stashed and saw our Command Sergeant Major help himself to the meal he wanted. I, a skinny 5’8” entry-level private, ran over to the 6’5” Commander and grabbed the meal out of his hands. He was not happy, and I caught hell for it that day! Years later, when leaving the Army, I was called into his office. He recalled the incident and wanted to know where my courage came from. I just told him I was acting on what I knew was the right thing to do. He agreed. That is how I hope to conduct myself in all my endeavors.
My advice to young people is to do what is right. Build relationships above all else and use your time and energies on spiritual things rather than seeking material things. Those will come over time. Have a giving heart, with no expectations of payment or recognition, and those things will usually follow. Let seeds of service grow within, and your life will be rich and full!