Long a Pillar, Now Top Leader

Peers name Tom James of Raymond James Financial the area's top business leader.

Published January 30, 2006

Tom James has a short answer to explain why he stood out by a considerable margin as this year's top business leader in the St. Petersburg Times annual survey of regional business leadership.

"If you have been around for 35 years, if you are the last guy standing, then you will get the attention," says the chief executive of the Raymond James Financial investment firm in St. Petersburg.

Well said. In this fast-growing metropolitan area, where there are few headquartered corporations, and regional managers of distant companies flip like fish in and out of their jobs here, James is the corporate Rock of Gibraltar. He grew up in St. Petersburg, took over the brokerage firm founded by his father, and last week reported record earnings for a business with 10,000 employees and more than $2-billion in revenues.

And there's a good reason other than longevity that James scored top numbers this year. He loves getting out in the community and making things happen. The influential organizations he is involved with make for a too-long list, but they include vice chairman of the Florida Council of 100, head of the Salvador Dali Museum board and prominent leader of the United Way's local chapter of the Alexis de Tocqueville Society, the group of big-buck givers.

At 63, James says his workday runs from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. during the week, and he devotes half-days on the weekends. I'm tired just thinking about it.

In this year's survey of 180 area business executives, James was cited most often -- up from No. 3 last year -- as one of the Tampa Bay area's top business leaders. James was followed by Craig Sher, the CEO of the Sembler Co., a commercial developer whose work includes BayWalk and numerous Publix supermarkets. Sher made a quantum leap in the survey from a year ago, tying in the latest survey with TECO Energy president John Ramil. Ramil dipped slightly after his No. 1 showing last year, when he had just concluded his term as head of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

Right behind Sher and Ramil, the list rounded out with another tie between Progress Energy Florida chief Bill Habermeyer and Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. Habermeyer fell slightly in the survey from 2005, while Iorio's numbers rose.

No less interesting was the survey's look at those leaders of yesterday who are slipping out of the upper ranks of business leaders, or who are no longer even mentioned.

Outback Steakhouse co-founder Chris Sullivan, a dynamic leader, dropped significantly in this year's survey because he has relinquished his CEO position (he remains chairman) with the successful restaurant chain. At Clearwater's Tech Data Corp., the largest public company by revenues in Florida, CEO Steve Raymund's numbers also drooped. Raymund, who ranked No. 1 in the 2002 survey, indicated this month (but after this survey) that a search for a new CEO is under way to allow the 50-year-old more personal time.

Other once-prominent area business leaders apparently have had their day in the spotlight. John Sykes, founder and former CEO of Tampa's Sykes Enterprises? Lawyer and former gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride? Former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez? All gone with the wind, as far as this survey suggests.


So what makes Tom James tick (besides collecting Western art and hitting the ski slopes)? What's important to the acknowledged Top Gun of the area's business elite?

Last week, in a Raymond James boardroom awash in American Indian and Western art, James offered his views on a sweeping range of issues, from the lack of depth in regional business leadership and education ("We don't spend enough") to the Broadway musical Wicked now playing in Tampa ("A fun show!"). Here are some edited highlights of that interview:

If the likes of (CEOs) Chris Sullivan and Steve Raymund are not going to be around as much, are other leaders stepping up?

Not as much as I'd like. When I look around, I see the traditional ones like Bill Habermeyer, the Mr. Outside at Progress Energy, a bright guy. I see the same in Tampa with TECO Energy (John Ramil) and with Verizon. But we do not have the large banks based here like we once did, so that is troubling to me.

You grew up in St. Petersburg and run a St. Petersburg-based company . . .

I view myself as a Tampa Bay area resident. I really feel like a community person and work hard to marshal the resources to work together and solve the problems that transcend local concerns.

And those would be?

Bringing companies to this area. Growth management. Roadways. If we have all that building going on in Pasco (County), and Pasco people are not paying for their share of the Tampa roadways, then you have a problem.

You seem quite taken by Gov. Jeb Bush.

He's one of the more interesting personalities I've ever met. He has a commitment to free enterprise and other issues that make him sound like a strong Republican. But get him talking about social needs and low incomes and education, I mean he could pass for John Kennedy.

Who else has done a lot for this area?

(Rep. C.W.) Bill Young. This guy has just been amazing. I guess you could say we get our pork barrel projects, but the fact is we have a senior legislator who heads key committees. He has had immense practical power to help.

People look up to you for leadership. Who did you look up to?

My role model was Chester Ferguson, who ran the Lykes family business and was a prominent lawyer here. This guy was everywhere. If something needed to be done, Chester would get it done, and nobody would have to ask him. You can't do that today. In this world, as big and diverse as we are, we have to coalesce all sorts of talented people and resources to get things done.


If James seems at the peak of his game, he's still casting an eye for candidates rising in the leadership ranks for the future of the Tampa Bay area.

Several players showed up on the 2006 Times survey radar after little or no past recognition in the polls. Dewey Mitchell of Prudential Tropical Realty got a bump up, which may reflect his current role atop the Tampa Bay Partnership regional economic development group, as well as his status in up-and-coming Pasco. Another player who has made an immense splash by his regional philanthropy? Dr. Kiran Patel, who, between major donations to the University of South Florida, area hospitals and performing arts centers, is hoping to begin construction soon on a 35,000-square-foot mansion sprawled over 17 acres in Hillsborough County.

Also showing modest signs of momentum: TECO CEO Sherrill Hudson, who helped orchestrate the power company's turnaround from a rough patch a few years ago; and the new managers of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays -- specifically, the not-to-be-underestimated Matt Silverman, the youthful Rays president.

That makes sense. After all, if the Tampa Bay area wants to play in the big leagues, more business leaders will have to learn to play ball.

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or 727 893-8405.