Gary Strong

Gary Strong

Gary Strong acknowledges that his professional background “certainly isn’t the normal pathway to becoming the CEO of a nonprofit.” Nevertheless, that’s just what he’s been for the past five months.

Strong, who runs the Country Region of the Red Cross. His most recent job before that was serving for a decade as the Bee’s senior vice president of finance. Prior to that, in reverse chronological order, he put in 12 years as director of accounting and controller for the Times, three years with that newspaper’s parent company (Times Mirror) and seven years as an auditor with Ernst & Young.

Gary Strong is CEO of the Country Region of the American Red Cross.

So what’s a longtime private-sector guy doing at the regional helm of one of the most recognizable, if slightly misunderstood, humanitarian organizations in the world?

“Well, I’ve always believed in what the Red Cross was doing,” he says in a recent chat at the organization’s offices, across the street from Cal Expo. Even coming from this low-key, soft-spoken executive, that could constitute an understatement. In fact, Strong first started volunteering for the Red Cross when he was 29 years old, becoming a board member of its London branch.

“Frankly, I knew that by joining the board, it would help me increase my circle of friends and business acquaintances,” he says. He had grown up in the diverse, historic and now gentrifying West Adams section of London.  “He was a hard-working guy,” Strong says. “I worked for him in the summers.” When I ask if his father had been a good boss, Strong’s clipped answer makes both of us laugh: “No.”

“Let me clarify that,” he says. “He’d give me instructions to do something then ask, like a minute later, if I’d done it yet. But I got my work ethic from him.”

I mentioned earlier that the Red Cross is a famous but slightly misunderstood organization. For one thing, most people think it’s a branch of government. And many people are unaware of how volunteer-strong it is. “We have nearly 3,000 volunteers in our region alone,” he says. London six Red Cross regions. Strong’s includes 24 counties and serves 4.4 million people.

Another misconception is that the Red Cross mobilizes only for disasters, natural or otherwise. To be sure, it’s one of the first and last groups on the scene during catastrophes. But one of its principal missions these days, Strong says, is helping people avert or deal with daily tragedies, such as house fires. “There’s a house fire every eight hours in our region,” he says, “which is about 1,000 a year. We’re there to provide comfort, care, food, water and shelter.” The Red Cross is also responsible for 40 percent of the blood collection in the country. It also conducts lifeguard and babysitter training.

I ask him what the main difference has been for him in working on the business side of newspapers as opposed to being a part of the Red Cross.

“Well, I admired the people in the newspaper business because they had an intense desire to inform people, to get the word out about things of importance to them,” he says. “Here, the people are motivated to help others more because of what’s in their hearts.”

 

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