Dennis Pastrana lifted Goodwill of South Florida from brink of bankruptcy

Dennis Pastrana is retiring from Goodwill Industries of South Florida after leading the organization since 1979.
Dennis Pastrana is retiring from Goodwill Industries of South Florida after leading the organization since 1979.
Goodwill Industries of South Florida

Goodwill under Dennis Pastrana

• Operates 11 businesses with combined annual revenues nearing $100 million.

• Employs about 2,500 people with special needs.

• Largest manufacturer in South Florida.

• Fourth-largest Goodwill in the United States.

• Earned four-star rating from Charity Navigator.

• More than 48,000 people with special needs completed Goodwill of South Florida programs since 1979, earning $493 million in their job placements.

More info: 305-325-9114;

The Goodwill Industries of South Florida that Dennis Pastrana took over in 1979 literally stunk.

“Our image in the community was one of trash,” he once said to the Miami Herald. “Our stores were smelly, and our collection boxes stank.”

Pastrana, a Cuban-born father of two, spent the next 35 years turning around South Florida’s small, bankrupt Goodwill into one of the national nonprofit’s most-successful organizations. Now he said he’s ready to pass on the torch.

Pastrana, 74, announced his retirement Monday after 49 years with Goodwill Industries, a career that included stints in Milwaukee and Washington, D.C.

Pastrana’s replacement as president and CEO: David Landsberg, a Miami native who spent 30 years in finance and management at the Miami Herald Media Co., the past seven as its president and publisher.

“After 341/2 years here, it really is time for me to retire,” Pastrana said. “Today feels like I’m handing over my 341/2-year-old daughter to someone. And with David taking over the CEO position, I know that person is someone really special, someone who will continue our mission and carry on my legacy. Today is a very special day for me.”

Landsberg, 51, said he was attracted to the challenge of building Goodwill’s five entrepreneurial divisions — donated goods, service contracts, healthcare laundry, commercial services, and military apparel and flag manufacturing — while maintaining its commitment to helping people with special needs lead productive, meaningful lives.

“Goodwill is a model of social entrepreneurialism and one of the most unique and cost-effective charities in America,” Landsberg said.

Finding a replacement for Pastrana was a tall order, said Joseph Lacher, board chairman of Goodwill Industries of South Florida. The search began in 2012, when Pastrana told the board that he was considering retirement.

Lacher and other search-committee members interviewed candidates from as far as California before deciding their best option was right in front of them. Landsberg has served on Goodwill’s board for the past 18 years.

“We wanted to find someone with outstanding leadership skills, an entrepreneurial background and financial expertise,” Lacher said. “No one in the country fits that bill better than David.”

Landsberg said his time on the board allowed him to watch and learn from Pastrana’s leadership.

“The modern Goodwill, and this Goodwill in particular, is really built in the image of Dennis Pastrana,” Landsberg said Monday after announcing his resignation to Herald employees. “He is largely responsible for the model of creating businesses that are perfect places for people with disabilities to work and gain back some independence. He deserves incredible credit for that.”

Goodwill of South Florida now employs 2,500 people with special needs, provides programs and services to another 5,000 people a year, and operates with annual revenues nearing $100 million.

Founded in 1959, Goodwill Industries of South Florida provides rehabilitation, on-the-job training, work experience, job placement and other services for people with special needs and disabilities.

Last year, people with disabilities employed by Goodwill Industries of South Florida or in Goodwill-placed jobs earned a combined $33.1 million. Since Pastrana took over in 1979, more than 48,000 people have completed local Goodwill programs, and people with disabilities that it employed or placed in jobs earned $493 million.

But the Goodwill ship didn’t always sail so smoothly.

The Goodwill of South Florida that Pastrana inherited in 1979 was in the worst shape of any Goodwill in the country, bleeding about $300,000 a year. It had laid off 53 of its severely disabled workers just before Christmas 1978. Its donation centers were filthy, and its administration was in disarray. It found jobs for fewer than 80 special-needs people a year.

Pastrana, who earned an accounting degree in Cuba and an MBA from Marquette University, blamed his ego on his reason for accepting the Miami assignment, saying he took the Goodwill job “to see if I could save this disaster.”

Before that, Pastrana lent his magic touch to Milwaukee, working his way up the ranks of that city’s Goodwill to become its executive director. Goodwill of America then called him up to the national headquarters in Washington, where he traveled across the country, teaching local Goodwill leaders about managing money.

In Miami, Pastrana cleaned house by replacing key staff, generating new service contracts, developing training programs and renovating rundown thrift shops. He turned the agency’s books from red to black and found job placements for hundreds of people a year.

Pastrana has helped Goodwill operate 11 businesses, including a new industrial laundry near Liberty City that employs 200 people. Another major part of its operation: making military apparel and U.S. flags for the government. Goodwill and other organizations that employ people with disabilities came under scrutiny last year for paying some workers less than minimum wage, a gap that’s allowed as part of a federal program.

Over the years, Pastrana’s other enterprising ideas have included re-labeling donated designer jeans and selling them for $3.25 (that venture earned Goodwill $80,000) and manufacturing swimsuits (that operation went belly-up after the suits’ elastic was found to deteriorate in saltwater).

Even during difficult financial times, Pastrana has taken a firm stance against layoffs, calling Goodwill “a business with a social mission.” But he had no other option after Hurricane Andrew, which pushed Goodwill to the brink of collapse. The agency laid off 317 employees — half its work force at the time — including many disabled workers who lived in storm-ravaged South Miami-Dade.

The 1992 hurricane wiped out $3.2 million in custodial contracts Goodwill had at Homestead Air Force Base, forced the closure of three Miami-Dade Goodwill stores and resulted in a $1.5 million revenue loss. Pastrana said he lost sleep over the decision to make staffing cuts, adding that it was the only way to keep his Goodwill out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

“Goodwill of South Florida simply would not be here today if not for Dennis,” said Thomas Erban, a retired Bacardi executive and current Goodwill board member. “He has this incredibly beautiful combination of business acumen and a deep empathy for those he serves. You can walk in to one of our centers with him, and he knows the name of every person there, and they know him. He is truly a very special person.”

Along the way, Pastrana has picked up top honors from Goodwill’s national office and a plethora of state and local awards, including a 1987 Miami Herald Spirit of Excellence award. “Miami Goodwill went from being the biggest loser in 1979 among all Goodwills in the United States to become the biggest winner,” award judges wrote.

Pastrana’s total 2012 compensation, the latest year for which records are available, was $612,656, including benefits, incentives and retirement. He said he plans to “relax a little bit” in this next chapter of his life, but will stay busy by consulting for Goodwill and other nonprofits.

“I want to be engaged. I don’t want to be completely out of the loop,” Pastrana said. “I’m sure at some moments, it will be hard for me not to be in charge anymore. But knowing that I’m handing things over to someone as qualified and talented as David sure makes it easier to step away.”

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