Our Stories

Francis Guess: a Pillar in Business and Society

Nashville native rose to the top of corporations and government

Francis Guess
Revered Nashville Business Leader (deceased)

Vanderbilt MBM 1974

After returning from Vietnam, where he served in military intelligence, Francis Guess completed his bachelor’s degree, then looked to go further. He’d been accepted to law school at the University of Tennessee when he read an article in Black Enterprise magazine about a management school starting at Vanderbilt. He went to meet the admissions director — and soon enrolled.

“UT sent me a letter saying that they’d let me go to school there,” Guess said. “Vanderbilt Graduate School of Management made me feel like they wanted me to go there.”

He joined one of the early classes, before the school offered an MBA (Guess earned a Master of Business Management) and before it was even named Owen. “[The school] at that point in time was heavily oriented toward consultative-type work,” he recalled. “As a result, we tended to lead with an attitude of ‘I am an analyst—where are my problems?’”

From then on, Guess, who grew up in a Nashville public housing project, was a problem solver in business, government, and the community. He was an executive vice president in The Danner Company, which operated Shoney’s Restaurants, and executive director of the philanthropic Danner Foundation. He ran his own helicopter company. He headed the state departments of labor and general services when Lamar Alexander was Tennessee’s governor. For more than three decades, he served on the Tennessee Human Rights Commission. And President Ronald Reagan appointed him to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, where he investigated and made recommendations regarding discrimination.

When Guess died in 2015, he was remembered as a great civic and business leader — and a pioneer. “He blazed many trails for equal opportunity and good government,” said Alexander, who considered him a close friend.