Calling all apprentices

One company has turned its search for ideas into a contest.

Published September 27, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Hard job, low pay, difficult partners. Interested?

The Cypress Co. is making this odd offering to clever and ambitious would-be "apprentices" willing to share their ideas in a competition over how to use one of the development company's Midwestern assets.

"It's not a job," said Blake Thompson, vice president and general counsel of Cypress. "I don't want somebody who wants a job. I want somebody with passion."

Thompson said Cypress wants creative ideas for an underused 300,000-square-foot outlet mall between Dayton, Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio.

Rather than hire a company to fill the space, Cypress is soliciting business plans from entrepreneurs in a competition inspired by the television show The Apprentice. The winner gets a small salary and possibly an interest in a multimillion-dollar venture.

The company posted the offer to students this month and has been flooded with business plans.

Thompson said he's received 35 from Stetson University's College of Law alone. Cypress is already beginning some early interviews but will continue collecting ideas into October before choosing a winner and funding that person's business plan.

"You better like what you send us, because if we hire you, we're going to make you do it," Thompson said.

Thompson, whose condominium projects include Palladium Flats and Walker-Whitney Plaza, hooked up recently with Tallahassee developer Jim Rudnick and others to form Cypress. Rudnick came to Thompson with the Ohio property as a puzzle.

"It's a unique asset and I went to Blake and said, 'What do we do with this?' " Rudnick said of the half-full home-improvement mall. "I never thought of approaching it in this way."

Though he has some projects under his belt, Thompson, 25, is something of an apprentice to Rudnick. With 20 years of experience and a rich portfolio throughout the Southeast, Rudnick, 48, is an established figure in all varieties of development.

He's taken Thompson under his wing but is pleased enough with what he's seen to extend the concept further.

"It seems like young people don't mind exploring their horizons a little bit," Rudnick said. "They show you creative ability, thinking outside the box and gumption."

Rudnick is particularly taken with one proposal that's already come his way to build an auto auction facility in the Ohio mall.

Thompson said they've also seen ideas for a furniture distribution center, a computer assembly plant and even a server farm that they are shopping to Microsoft. The free research might translate into other hires or to other properties of the company's 60 commercial sites nationwide, Rudnick said.

Thompson said the idea for a competition has roots in his relationship with Laura Vaughan, who recently finished her fourth season of casting for NBC's show The Apprentice, in which young entrepreneurs vie for a slot running a business for Donald Trump.

Vaughan said the show is remarkably real, but her work on the Cypress version is different.

"There's a big difference between Apprentice the TV show and finding an apprentice for a reputable company here in town," said Vaughan, 27, of the sometimes television-influenced selections for Trump's show. "But I wouldn't go about it any other way. It's also giving somebody the opportunity of a lifetime."

Thompson feels the same way about his connection with Rudnick. He says he's still awed by being in the mix of the big-time real estate business, but he doesn't let that slow him down.

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sptimes.com or by participating in itsyourtimes.com .