Some famous “rags to riches” celebrities like to joke about their rough beginnings. In hindsight, it’s often easy to look back with humor.
Dolly Parton, for example, once teased: “We were so poor, we were dirty poor. We had so many kids, so our house couldn’t stay clean because there were so many of us. After Mama gave birth to 12 of us kids, we put her up on a pedestal. It was mostly to keep Daddy away from her.”
Insurance executive Thomas Cundy, namesake of the Fort Lauderdale-based Cundy Inc., one of the leading privately held employee benefit consulting firms, was born poor, too, during the Depression. So poor, in fact, he never slept in a real bed until he earned a tennis scholarship and enrolled at Florida State University.
He was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents in small town, Bellevue, Ky., and those humble beginnings guided his outlook for the rest of his life.
“When it comes to this company, I gave it my own name because its values and purpose grew from my own life, my own beliefs,” Cundy said in a video posted on his company’s website. “I grew up on the poor side of the tracks, picking up coal on train yards to keep our stove burning. That’s how I learned every family needs a safety net. Success comes only from hard work and catering to the needs of others. Competitive athletics taught me the value of discipline and training. To be competitive you’ve got to find a way to be better every day.”
As such, Cundy, who died Sunday at age 80 of congestive heart failure at his Miami Beach home, was driven his entire life.
“My dad was the consummate Triple A personality — insomniac, 5 a.m. breakfasts, go-all-the-day-and-night. He just loved being with people and loved working,” said son David Cundy, 52, who is now president of Cundy Inc, which his father founded in 1958.
Discipline. Impeccable dress. Honor. Hallmarks to a successful life — his father’s life, his son said.
“Doing what you say you are going to do, he was always big about showing up, he was always faithful to the mission,” David Cundy said.
In 2000, Cundy, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean War who achieved the rank of captain while serving in the reserves, was honored as a recipient of the Horatio Alger Award for his business acumen and philanthropy. The ceremony was held at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.
Television personality Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s sidekick on The Tonight Show, paid tribute to Cundy at the event, marveling at his business savvy.
At the time, Cundy Inc. represented the insurance needs of hundreds of companies, including Fortune 500 firms like Anheuser-Busch, Ford, American Express and Ryder. “All this from a young man who didn’t have a bed to sleep on until he went to college,” the late McMahon said. “In the insurance industry some people work all of their livcs and finally hit the $1 million mark. Cundy did it in the first 10 months he was in business.”
The TV star was referring to Cundy’s post-military gig at Prudential, a job that immediately preceded the founding of his own company, which today has 12 full-time employees, along with senior consultants and independent sales people.
Friend Bill Allen, a veteran banker in Miami who led Southeast Bank, InterContinental Bank and Northern Trust Bank of Florida, among others, remembers Cundy’s first steps into the insurance industry. The two served together in the Marine Corps and have been close friends for decades.
“I followed his progress,” Allen said. “I remember a time going up and down Las Olas in an old beat-up car with life insurance folders in the back seat going from business to business, cold-calling. He started with nothing,” Allen said. “He was a Damon Runyon guy. He lit up the room when he came in. He never met a stranger. He was the best salesman I ever met. The high priest of sales. And his charitable acts were legendary.”
And he was a man about town. Son Thomas Cundy, Jr. remembers when Joe’s Stone Crab on South Beach, one of his dad’s favorite spots, named a dish for him on the menu: TC’s Pompano, after the fish.
Later in life, Cundy exercised his sharp mind by devouring books on World War II. His heart started to give out, but not his mind, David Cundy said.
“His retention of information and people’s names and dates and cities was remarkable. His No. 1 hobby in the last 10-15 years was World War II and, in particular, D-Day and Normandy. He was always reading books and had even gone to the extreme to get the German books and translate them to English so he could read how German officers saw Normandy from their side. World War II was going on in his childhood and he had uncles that were there.
“He had this bigger than life personality.”
Cundy is survived by his wife Jane, sons Thomas Jr., David and John “Jay” along with six grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Thomas University, 16401 NW 37th Ave., Miami Gardens.