Long a heavyweight player on the Tampa Bay area business scene, Outback Steakhouse co-founder and CEO Chris Sullivan for the first time ranks as the No. 1 area business leader in the St. Petersburg Times' annual Business Outlook survey.
Sullivan - whose personal influence and corporate involvement range broadly from the new Scripps Research Institute project, the state university system and Republican political circles to the statewide Council of 100, the nation's Boys and Girls Clubs, the popular Outback Bowl and a significant ownership stake in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays - was eager to share the first-place spotlight in the Times survey.
"I am the beneficiary of the efforts of a lot of people in our company and the Outback brand," Sullivan said by phone last week from Las Vegas. "Why do you want to talk to a C student from Kentucky?"
So-so grades or not, we could use a few more folks with Sullivan's business drive. It was not modesty that helped Sullivan bull ahead of TECO Energy executive and newly named Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce chairman John Ramil to grab the top spot among "emerging business leaders" in the latest Times survey of 174 area business executives, managers and regional industry observers. Ramil, a Tampa native, came in at No. 2, followed by Tampa lawyer Rhea Law at No. 3, CEO Tom James of St. Petersburg's Raymond James Financial at No. 4, and - in a rapid rise from nowhere - Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio at No. 5.
A year ago, Law, president of the Fowler White Boggs Banker law firm and the 2003 chairwoman of the Tampa Bay Partnership economic development group, became the first woman to rank No. 1 in the annual survey. In 2002, CEO Steve Raymund of Clearwater's Tech Data Corp. ranked first, while former Holland & Knight lawyer and gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride was No. 1 in the 2001 survey.
The 2004 survey results reinforce the emergence of a new group of business influentials. The poll also tracks the shrinking clout of a few who dominated the leader surveys of three or more years ago. Sykes Enterprises CEO John Sykes, the Tampa powerhouse of the late 1990s whose name now adorns the University of Tampa business school, joins several others who were largely ignored by recent survey respondents. They include McBride, now a lawyer with a small Tampa law firm; and the Glazer family, owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
What creates the perception of more clout for one area business than another? In the short term, some business executives rise because they become elected leaders, usually for one year, of an area chamber of commerce or similar economic development group. That temporary position raises their profile.
Longer term, the Times survey results show that some business people who built and run their own successful companies - mostly businesses familiar to consumers - continue to rank among the top leaders year after year. That is especially true of CEO James of Raymond James Financial. And it is true of Outback's Sullivan.
While the Times survey shows Sullivan won enough votes to rank No. 1 this year on his own, some respondents separately cited the "Outback group" as an emerging leader. And Outback co-founder Bob Basham was noted, though less often in 2004 than in the past several years.
Chris Sullivan, a few weeks shy of 56, stumbled into the restaurant business. He waited tables and was a busboy at a Steak & Brew in Fort Lauderdale to help pay his way through the University of Kentucky. He planned to study banking. But when later interviewing for jobs, he instead opted for a waiter's job at $500 a week. He soon landed another job in Maryland at a Steak and Ale restaurant. After gaining experience in other cities, he was transferred to Tampa in 1977. Stints at Bennigan's and Chili's helped Sullivan, along with his friend Basham, to see what did and did not work in casual dining.
The first Outback Steakhouse opened in North Tampa. Now Sullivan heads a company with 825 Outback Steakhouses, 148 Carrabba's Italian Grills, 23 Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bars, 18 Roy's, 37 Bonefish Grills, two Lee Roy Selmon's and two Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurants in 50 states and 21 countries. Outback's' market capitalization tops $3-billion, which makes it bigger in financial clout than TECO Energy or Tech Data.
Sullivan, speaking by phone, offered a few insights into why he ranks so high among area business leaders. Some excerpts:
Q. Everybody knows the Outback brand. That must help.
Our people are very involved in the community. Bob Basham, Tim Gannon and I get too much credit.
Q. You've been here 27 years now. How has this area's business scene changed?
I see tremendous leadership. It's fortunate we are a community with lots of medium-size businesses. There is such a difference in the level of energy here than there was 10 years ago and earlier. I think the Tampa Bay community is on the move.
Q. Is it true Outback could have started elsewhere?
I had the opportunity to choose Tampa, Orlando or South Florida in 1977. I chose Tampa because I saw a community with room to grow. I had spent time in Dallas, Chicago and Atlanta and watched those markets explode. I saw that Tampa was going to be one of those places in Florida. I saw people who went to USF come back and build businesses. I saw the skylines develop in West Shore, in downtown Tampa and across Tampa Bay. Major projects like International Plaza, the redevelopment in St. Petersburg with BayWalk and the whole development around Raymond James have been tremendous.
Q. And in sports?
There's a lot. The new Raymond James Stadium. The St. Pete Times Forum. The arrival of Major League Baseball (Sullivan is one of the larger-share owners of the Devil Rays), even though I am not so positive on that outcome. But all those things are coming together, and they make for a positive image around the country.
Q. Outback seems to get involved in an unusually wide array of events.
We do a lot with the Boys and Girls Clubs around the country. We try to work with schools at the grass roots level in whatever community we are in. We've been to the Middle East to feed some of our troops and hope to do that again. We've become the sponsor of next month's Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am PGA golf tournament (formerly sponsored by Verizon). We are the title sponsor of the Outback Bowl, but have lots of support from other sponsors.
Q. And you were named to an oversight board, the Scripps Florida Funding Corp., to help keep an eye on the giant Scripps Research expansion in Palm Beach County?
Yes. Scripps would provide a big boost to biotech in this state. And it will benefit our university system in science and math.
Q. As the new chairman of the Council of 100, what's your priority?
To help move Florida's education system forward. That's also at the top of Gov. Bush's agenda. While some of the changes are controversial, I think over time it will be positive. The evolution of education here is just at its beginning.
Q. That's a full plate. Are you doing less at Outback?
We have good people and that lets me do other things. But I am still very involved on a daily basis with Outback Steakhouse Inc.
The latest Times survey offers some additional glimpses of who's rising, who's slipping and who's in-between. For example:
- USF President Judy Genshaft, who promised to make the university a major area player in biotech research and commercial development, began showing up in the survey results three years ago. Surprisingly, she has lost some momentum. Genshaft was cited more often as a leader in last year's survey than this year's, even though she was recently named to run the Tampa chamber's Committee of 100, responsible for recruiting new businesses and expanding existing ones.
- Progress Energy Florida chief Bill Habermeyer ranks among the area's top 10 business leaders, but barely. He's prominent in the Tampa Bay Partnership as well as Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development arm. The area business community still needs to get to know him better.
- Who popped up, beyond a past casual mention, on the area business radar screen this year? Sam Ellison, managing director of the Beck Group construction effort in Florida, burst into the top 10 rankings. Ellison is gaining prominence in Tampa's chamber of commerce as Beck pursues development projects near Tampa's Channelside. Also cited in the survey: Craig Sher, chief of Sembler Co., the builder of St. Petersburg's BayWalk; and Don Wallace, the owner of Lazydays RV SuperCenter and head of Land Concepts LLC, an investment group involved with the proposed (but recently shelved) Civitas project to redevelop part of Tampa.
- Robert Trigaux can be reached at email@example.com or 727 893-8405.