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Columns

It's even hotter for these folks

Maybe it's the August heat. But I have great sympathy for the Tampa Bay area people who appear in today's column.

By Robert Trigaux, Times Business Editor
Published August 13, 2007


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Maybe it's the August heat. But I have great sympathy for the Tampa Bay area people who appear in today's column. They're sweating - muggy weather or not - because they are confronted by prodigious business challenges. Some are on the front end of big deals. Others are wrestling with changes of economic fortune. Others are rolling the same boulder up the hill for the umpteenth time.

Watch them with interest. Help them when you can. Learn from their experiences. Hand them a glass of water.

Let's start with the newest arrivals, the known trio of puck-lovin' partners of MacLean-Sherrin-Koules of the well-named Absolute Hockey Enterprises. They are waving a check in the vicinity of $210-million at the Tampa Bay Lightning's owner, billionaire Bill Davidson, to buy the franchise, the St. Pete Times Forum lease and some surrounding land. It's too early to assess these guys as managers of Tampa's hockey franchise, but if the deep pockets of Davidson's crew claimed to be unable to make a buck to sold-out arenas, what makes the new owners more likely to succeed?

We're all for giving them the benefit of the doubt - for now - for their excellent timing. Forbes magazine this month named the Lightning as No. 2 among "hockey's hottest brands" based on the franchise's 42 percent growth in the value of its brand in the past three years. Maybe these guys are on to something...

One area CEO who probably feels like she's been slammed once too often against the casual dining boards is Leslie Christon of Tampa's Shells Seafood Restaurants, who celebrates her fourth summer of trying to resuscitate a restaurant chain that financially is gasping like a fish out of water. The chain, whose stock approached $15 a share in the late 1990s, trades today at 15 cents.

Last week, Shells reported its sales fell 12 percent while it lost just more than $1-million in the latest quarter. Christon cited a "difficult local economy" and "competitive value offerings" in the marketplace.

"Consumers generally are experiencing higher personal costs in, among other things, insurance premiums, property taxes, energy bills and fuel costs," she said. "As a result, we believe they are choosing lower-cost dining alternatives, while reducing their number of dining-out experiences."

In the same week, Shells disclosed it had renegotiated Christon's pay package, cutting her salary to $275,000 from $300,000 a year, but increasing her monthly auto allowance to $1,200 from $1,000. So that saves $25,000 in salary but adds $2,400 in higher auto expenses. Probably not enough to put Shells on the fast track ...

At Home Depot, CEO Frank Blake may think he's hit his thumb with a hammer but it may just be the pain inflicted by the nation's rising credit crunch. Last week, Home Depot's planned $10-billion sale of its HD Supply wholesale business - composed of the former Cox Lumber of St. Petersburg and Hughes Supply in Orlando, among others - to shopaholics Bain Capital and the Carlyle Group got wobbly knees. Blake is considered a breath of fresh Home Depot air after the controversy of former CEO Bob Nardelli, but Nardelli is back in the driver's seat running Chrysler for its new owner, Cerberus Capital ...

Meanwhile, who ran over homebuilder WCI Communities? The high-end developer, with recent projects in South Tampa and south of this metro area, has been whacked by the market. Shares dropped from more than $20 this summer to less than $5 before hovering just less than $9.

Suddenly that spurned March offer of $22 a share by corporate raider Carl Icahn looks rich. Maybe shareholders will get some better answers at WCI's postponed annual meeting, now scheduled for Aug. 30.

Last but not least, a salute to all the beleaguered Floridians keen on staying cool. I opened my latest Progress Energy electric bill and nearly suffered a personal power failure. Big bucks. It's more infuriating after looking at an analysis on rising electricity rates between 2002 and 2006 done by Ken Rose, senior fellow at the Institute of Public Utilities at Michigan State University. Florida fared poorly, with electricity costing 11.31 cents per kilowatt hour but rising 38.6 percent in that four-year period. Residents of other southeastern states all paid significantly less for electricity and had sharply lower increases in prices over the same period. What's wrong with that picture?

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

[Last modified August 10, 2007, 23:32:03]


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