Despite exceptions, we've got work to do

For all the largely positive and hopeful remarks, the Tampa Bay business world is no front-runner in embracing corporate diversity.

By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Editor
Published March 18, 2007

Let's cut to the chase.

For all the largely positive and hopeful remarks in these pages, the Tampa Bay business world is no front-runner in embracing corporate diversity as the right thing to do, much less as a key tool for remaining viable as a business in the future. Our greater metropolitan area still lacks enough significant role models among its businesses to reach that tipping point when corporate boardrooms, executive suites and even the work force better reflect the broader community.

We are, as ever, a work in progress.

That's why it might pay to learn from some bigger and older companies that already have wrestled with many of the issues of workplace diversity that local companies are just starting to adopt, still choosing to ignore or, frankly, are simply too young and preoccupied to grasp.

Yes, there are some Tampa Bay exceptions, as we discovered in surveying 10 area public companies about women and minorities among their directors, executive officers and companywide. Details appear on Pages 14 and 15.

TECO Energy, the Tampa power company, did well. So did Clearwater's Tech Data and Tampa's Wellcare.

But the majority - from Lincare and MarineMax to Outback and Raymond James - probably have some work to do. Even among these firms, some at least are willing to discuss the challenge of corporate diversity. Others apparently can't be bothered.

To its credit, Clearwater's MarineMax - with no women or minorities among its directors or top execs - tries to explain. Jay Avelino, vice president of team development at MarineMax, told Times reporter Christina Rexrode that the company looks for top performers and does not care if they are black or Hispanic or have a different sexual orientation.

"We want to make sure each person was hired because they were an A player," he said, "not because they would fill some imaginary quota."

Larger companies are more likely to get the diversity message. Many learned the hard way, via discrimination lawsuits or - more likely - the loss to competing corporations of very talented women and minorities who felt their views were not heard or their careers were sidelined.

Global companies tend to "get it" as they try to develop work forces that resemble their diverse customers.

No company's perfect. Verizon, Tampa Bay's dominant telecom provider, wins many diversity awards yet still has few top executive minorities or women on its board. At the hospital giant HCA, no woman sits on the board, while women make up 76 percent of its work force.

For the record, here's how the Times Publishing Co., which publishes this newspaper, stacks up. On its 11-member board, there is one black man and two women - one white and one black - for a 27 percent representation of women and minorities. The 17-member operating committee includes five women and two black men, or about 41 percent. For the remainder of its staff, 41 percent are women; 15 percent are black, and 4.5 percent are Hispanic.

No corporation should wait for a diversity epiphany. The changing world is staring us all in the face if we bother to look.

Nationally by mid-century, forecasters predict so-called "minority communities" will make up more than half of the U.S. population. Companies in the coming years that continue to stuff their boardrooms and fancy offices with aging white guys are in for a rude business awakening.

For those corporations slow to react, there's always opportunities for the courts to shake them from their slumber.

Just this month, a class-action lawsuit was filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the Walgreen Co., the nation's (and Florida's) largest drugstore chain. The claim: Walgreen discriminated against thousands of black employees across the country (and in Florida). The company denies it.

We are, as ever, a work in progress.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.