1997 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Only in America can I accomplish the goals I have set for myself both professionally and personally."
The grandson of Mexican immigrants, Carlos Cantu was born in 1934 in Brownsville, Texas. His father worked as an auto parts salesman for the Ford dealership in town and also ran a wrecker service. Cantu attended a parochial school where English was not emphasized. When he transferred to St. Joseph's Academy in the fourth grade, which was run by the Marist Brothers, he was forced to learn English as quickly as possible. An adept student, Cantu moved to the head of his class as soon as he was proficient in English, and stayed at the top throughout his school years.
In addition to understanding the value of education, Cantu's parents instilled in their children a commitment to service and helping others in need. They also nurtured in their children the idea that no one owed them anything. They taught their children to work hard, demand responsibility, and take the initiative.
Cantu was always encouraged to work. His first job was selling pumpkins and squash when he was only 10. As soon as he got a bicycle, however, he got a paper route. After delivering papers for four years, he worked for Western Union as a delivery boy. He also worked at the Ford dealership each summer as a laborer, sanding cars and doing janitorial work.
Cantu was an active student in high school. He served as vice president of his junior and senior class, and was co-captain of the football team. In 1951, he entered Texas A&M and majored in agricultural economics. To earn his way through school, Cantu worked for the athletic department as a janitor. Later, he worked for the U. S. Department of Agriculture.
Upon graduation, Cantu went to work for Cook & Co., a cotton trading firm. The firm sent Cantu to Mexico, as well as Central and South America, where Cantu managed some of the firm's Latin American operations. Cantu later facilitated the acquisition of a Mexican pest-control company, which he headed. Cantu and his wife settled in Mexico City and began raising their six children. By the early 1970s, however, the Cantus returned to the States, where he served as branch manager of a Cook subsidiary, Terminix.
Cantu quickly moved up the ladder at Terminix and became president and COO in 1978. Cantu's leadership transformed the company and within five years, Terminix was the number one pest-control business nationwide.
When Cook decided to sell Terminix in 1986, Cantu helped the new buyer, ServiceMaster. After holding a number of high-level jobs in ServiceMaster's consumer services division, Cantu became president and CEO of ServiceMaster in 1994, making him one of only six Hispanics at the time to head a Fortune 500 company.
Looking back over his career, Cantu once said, "I don't know that there is any other place where this type of success can happen. I don't mean just financial success. I mean the environment for my overall feeling of accomplishment. To me, success equals respect. To have the respect of my associates and friends is the greatest feeling one can have."* Deceased