CP Interview: Toni Jennings

Toni Jennings, 68, is among Florida’s pioneering women in two traditionally male-dominated industries  construction and state politics. Nearly 70 years ago, the family business started in the garage before moving to Wilfred Drive where it still is today. We met in her office, originally her father Jack’s officeWidely liked and respected, Toni served 28 years in state politics. During Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration, she became Florida’s first female lieutenant governor. She is perennially perfectly coiffed, smiling, and friendly to everyone. Today, Toni serves as chairman of Jack Jennings and Sons Construction Services and on several public company boards in the U.S. 

Gov. Jeb Bush asked you to be his lieutenant governor after you had been out of state politics for several years. 

Jeb called me at the end of January 2003, and we had a conversation. I said, “I’ve been Senate president for four years. I was in the Legislature for 24. I don’t need to come up there and cut ribbons. I want to be a meaningful part of policy decisions.” 

 The legislative session started on a Tuesday in March 2003. It was literally the Sunday before the legislative session started … and the phone rings. It was Jeb, and he said, “OK, are you ready to come?” 

 I said, “Come where? And why?” There was this dead silence on the phone. 

 Then he said, “Come up here, and work with me. Can you be here tomorrow?” 

I said, “It’s five o’clock on Sunday. Yes. But send the state plane to pick me up.” And he did. It was hilarious. 

Did you have things you wanted to work on? 

I told him I could be an effective advocate for his programs. I’m not a single-subject person. Jeb told me that because I was a business person, I brought those qualities. The first year I was there, we did worker’s comp; we did [medical malpractice]. Even though education was his big focus, all these other issues came into play. 

After your dad passed, you lived with your mother in the Rose Isle house where you grew up. Did people treat you differently when you became lieutenant governor? 

No, not here. It was the best thing. People would come up to me and say, “What do I call you now?” 

And I’d say, “You call me Toni.” When I was home, I’d drive myself around. If I went to an official function, the Highway Patrol would drive me. The neighbors all got used to seeing the unmarked police cars coming through the neighborhood. 

Where did the name Toni come from? 

Antoinette is my legal name. My mother had a very best friend whose name was Antoinette. And they called her Toni. 

How did you come into the family business? 

I’ve been here since I left teaching in 1973. Daddy was the one that said to come here and teach, and then he made the overture … He said, “Would you come here and try working with me for a while?” It was kind of an adventure thing — you never know what you can do until you try. Which is exactly how I ended up in politics. 

What was your first job for the company? 

I was the receptionist. Today we send out stuff electronically. In the old days, we had 50 sets of plans, and people would come in, and we would check them out to them. I went from there to accounts payable and understanding about our insurance and financial stuff. I got the best education because my dad got to teach me. 

When you were young, did you think you would get into politics or even work in the business? 

No! This was the ’70s, when women were really starting to get involved in a lot of things. My family was traditional; my Dad called this Jack Jennings and Sons. My dad had to put up with it the rest of his life! 

What did you learn from your father? 

To keep going. That your word is your bond. It may be written on a piece of paper but the good intention has to be in your heart and how you do things. If you can learn integrity by watching somebody do business, that’s what I learned. 

Jeb Bush encouraged you to run for governor, but you chose not to run. Why? 

I actually thought about it. I was flying back in a thunderstorm, and my plane got hit by lightning. I was fine, and the next morning when I woke up I thought, “I spend all my time with people I don’t know, and I don’t spend any time with people I love and who love me.” You don’t walk away from something you want, but I decided I don’t want it. It had been 28 years in the House, Senate and as lieutenant governor. Now, I’m here every day. 

It’s a family business; it’s us. [Twin brothers] John and Jeff run the day-to-day operations; they run the jobs. If it’s strategic planning, how we handle things — that’s why I’m here. The third generation is now here too. 

You are always cheerful and upbeat and polite. How do you do it? 

I’m a positive person. I’ve been very fortunate. It’s the old adage: You catch more flies with honey than you do with salt. There’s an old joke — the senators called it being “Tonied”: “You go in and ask her for something, and you talk about it, and she’s so nice, and she says no, and when you leave, you thank her. And you know you’ve just been Tonied!” You didn’t get anything you wanted, but you really felt good about it! Life’s too short. You get farther being nice to people. 

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