tampabay.com

10 people to watch

By ROBERT TRIGAUX
Published July 10, 2006


Why focus on just 10 people in the Tampa Bay business community in the latter half of 2006 when hundreds, if not more, face major challenges in building a better regional economy?

These lucky 10 are in influential positions and represent a broad swath of front-burner economic issues confronting us in the coming months.

Are relocating corporations growing cool to Tampa? Is Florida still fooling itself in the global race to attract better-paying jobs? Can a grass roots rebellion to soaring property insurance prices make any difference?

Will a leading area company rebound after a series of rough spots in the road? Can new blood reinvigorate treasure-hunting and TV-shopping companies or, in academia, bring strong leadership to an area business school stung by a past dean's departure?

And can our sometimes parochial world here finally catch on to the Net celebrity living right here and known as Wales?

My delight every six months is to scour the broader business scene for this semiannual column on People to Watch. Finding strong candidates has never been the problem. The deepening bench of smart, motivated businesspeople stepping up to make the Tampa Bay area a better, more vital and more diverse place to work and live makes the search easy.

The real task? Winnowing the many to the few. If these 10 are any indication, the next six months should be very, very interesting.

You have to admire Trammell Crow executive Bob Abberger's candor in his politically sensitive position as chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce's Committee of 100. This is the elite economic development group charged with recruiting new businesses - usually not the headquarters of companies, but at least some of their major divisions or back-office operations - to the Tampa area.

Given Florida's booming job growth, given Tampa Bay's seemingly endless expansion, Abberger should be crowing the usual rah-rah lines of economic developers.

So it comes as some surprise when Abberger, 51, recently volunteered that only half as many corporations are scouting locations this year in Hillsborough County as last year. "It's a clear slowdown in economic growth," he told a St. Petersburg Times reporter last month.

True enough. But here's some context: From the start of his reign as Committee of 100 chief in February, Abberger has proved a refreshing realist. Competitive wages? Affordable housing? Less-than-impressive educational results? He raised all these issues and more.

As Abberger sees it so clearly, we can't keep growing forever. And we won't keep attracting quality-job companies if we can't improve the pay scale, deal with the inflated housing market and school our kids as if we really want them to be competitive in the job market.

***

Mention the name Mike Alstott or Carl Crawford on the streets of Tampa Bay, and most folks usually know who you're talking about. But neither Mike nor Carl made Time magazine's May list of the top 100 people "whose power, talent or moral example is transforming our lives."

That's heady stuff. And a local named Jimmy Wales, 39, made it. Jimmy who?

Wales, a former options trader and perhaps still the Tampa Bay area's best-kept secret, is the creator of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that allows Internet users to add their own information - and police and edit the content of those who submit wrong or misleading entries. Sounds unwieldy but, amazingly, it works and has become a global phenomenon.

"Everyone predicted that mob rule would lead to chaos," Time says in its top 100 profile of Wales and his Wikipedia idea. "Instead it has led to what may prove to be the most powerful industrial model of the 21st century: peer production. Wikipedia is proof that it works, and Jimmy Wales is its prophet."

Not a shabby legacy for one of our own right here.

 

***

High on the priority list of area newcomer Mindy Grossman is the rejuvenation of St. Petersburg's Home Shopping Network. Grossman, 47, was hired as CEO of IAC Retailing this year by new-media mogul Barry Diller, head of Internet conglomerate IAC/InterActiveCorp, to put some zing back in HSN and other corporate retail outlets. She will be based here but will probably become a fixture at Tampa International Airport as she travels to and from IAC's HQ in New York.

Grossman, with past titles at Nike, Polo Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, brings some high-powered merchandising and brand experience to the area. Why do we care? Because HSN is in a marketing rut, with sales flat or declining despite a core television audience of some 5-million.

"Fashion is fleeting," Grossman once told Fast Company magazine.

We expect the HSN turnaround won't be.

***

If there's anyone in the thick of the struggle to boost the area work force, it's Renee Benton. The CEO of the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance is neck-deep in finding ways to build a better-skilled base of workers in Tampa/Hillsborough that fits the area's changing industry mix.

There's the rub. It sounds great to say Florida is all for better jobs and higher pay. Getting there is painful and apparently not happening, at least not on a statewide scale. University of Florida economist David Denslow recently unveiled a study that says Florida's share of better-paying jobs fell relative to the rest of the country from 1999 to 2004.

Enter Benton, 48. She works with companies to devise job-training programs that help meet employer needs and presumably help build better skills and paychecks for area workers.

Is this a little like rolling a rock uphill? Sure, the unemployment rate is near a record low, but we could use another dozen Bentons to help whip our work force into better shape.

 

***

How did this California braniac, Curtis Carlson, slip into this list of 10? Because as head of SRI International, Carlson, 61, is ultimately behind this soon-to-be-formally-announced we hope partnership here with USF St. Petersburg.

It's the worst-kept secret around. Though USF and St. Pete economic development leaders say they have signed nondisclosure agreements, buzz about a deal with SRI and USF's Center for Ocean Technology has been around for months.

SRI is full of smart people who look for the best ideas - like new sonar advances at USF here - and figure out how to make the best (and most lucrative) use of them. We're not certain, but we suspect at least a part of this partnership will interest two rich arms of the federal government: the U.S. Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

 

***

JOHN MORRIS officially is back as CEO of Odyssey Marine Exploration to help pilot the treasure-hunting business in some rough business seas. The Tampa company lost $15-million last year and nearly $4-million in this year's first quarter. It last snagged significant treasure in 2003 after finding the SS Republic, a wreck off the Georgia coast. Some of Republic's coins and treasures landed at Odyssey's Shipwreck and Treasure Museum, which was open for all of 90 minutes in New Orleans in August before the city urged the evacuation for Hurricane Katrina.

The museum has reopened, but Odyssey's own treasure - its stock price - is at $2.50, about half of what it was last summer. Still, Odyssey recently added to its robotic search fleet and a leaner Morris, 57, is back from treatment for cancer.

***

 

Last week's fire at Jabil Circuit in St. Petersburg proved to be more smoke than flame. So may Jabil CEO TIM MAIN's predicament as he contends with a major financial hiccup at Tampa Bay's biggest (by market value) public company and a rough period of publicity over his compensation.

It's not every month that a reduced earnings report cuts $1.5-billion of Jabil's stock value in a single day. Main, 48, responded last month by saying the electronics manufacturer will close plants in a restructuring that will cost up to $250-million. He's wrestling with some residual questions raised by the Wall Street Journal about the fortunate timing of his stock options. The company says there are no financial shenanigans, but Jabil faces a federal subpoena on the matter.

Give Main his due as CEO. Jabil has asserted itself as a global player in a tough, tough business. Odds are it will bounce back again from its recent woes.

 

***

Just when the insurance industry assumed Floridians were sheep and would accept any double-digit rise in their property insurance rates, here comes HAC: Homeowners Against Citizens. The grass roots Pasco County group was formed to protest relentlessly rising insurance rates, especially by state-run Citizens Property Insurance, and make it clear that things are so getting so bad that people are in danger of losing their homes over their insurance bills.

NICOLE DEG, 30, is one reason people are finally getting a voice. She helped form HAC, and has since gone on to pursue a political career by running for the County Commission.

It wasn't quite the insurance shot heard 'round the world, but it didn't hurt Deg's public profile. When Florida Gov. Jeb Bush last month signed an energy bill at the Port of Tampa, Deg yelled from the back of the tent: "Gov. Bush, what are you going to do about the thousands of people in Pasco County who are going to lose their homes?" Bush and Deg later met and talked. Amazing what a little noise and chutzpa can do.

 

***

Can PAUL CATOE, 63, continue his winning ways? The CEO of the Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau is riding high in the wake of the 20,000 Shriners who brought their annual gathering here. Catoe has also helped attract a Super Bowl for 2009, college basketball playoffs and a host of other events. The $64,000 question: Can he help persuade the GOP to pick Tampa for its big 2008 Republican national convention?

***

And what magic will GERALYN McCLURE FRANKLIN weave as the new dean of USF St. Petersburg's College of Business? She not only has to get the college prepped for an accreditation review, but Franklin, 45, may need to unruffle some feathers of a local business community upset after a less-than-deft demotion last year of the former business dean, Ron Hill.

All we can say to these 10 is: Hope you're taking your vitamins. It's going to be a very brisk pace through 2006.

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