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Former Barnett boss resurfaces in venture capital

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 5, 2001


He helped build Barnett Banks into Florida's top banking company. But can a conservative banker play the wilder game of Florida venture capitalists?

Former Barnett CEO Charlie Rice is resurfacing after a few years out of the Florida limelight. He and son Dan are starting a venture capital firm in Jacksonville called Mayport Venture Partners. Rice is expected to leave his position as Bank of America's vice chairman of corporate development as early as this month and will serve as Mayport's chairman. Son Dan, a lawyer, resigned his job as a partner at McGuire Woods Battle & Boothe to run the day-to-day operations of Mayport as president.

As Barnett CEO, Rice arguably was one of the most influential business executives in Florida in the 1980s and early 1990s. The longtime banker built a career on the promise that Barnett dominated the best of all possible banking markets and the premise that there was no reason to expand to other states.

That strategy backfired when competitors like NationsBank swelled in size to dwarf Barnett. By 1997, the same year Rice took a medical leave from Barnett for alcohol treatment, the banker agreed to sell Barnett to North Carolina's NationsBank. Rice personally set a banking industry record for a sellout package that earned him the nickname "the $150-million man." After NationsBank then bought BankAmerica and took that bank's name, Rice was given a figurehead title of BofA vice chairman of corporate development.

The sale of Barnett remains a bitter event for the thousands of Barnett employees who felt betrayed by company executives who denied to the end that Barnett was for sale. Many Florida companies and consumers who banked at Barnett still claim their shift to Bank of America has been a rude awakening.

Charlie and Dan are still in the early stages of attracting capital at Mayport. Dan's pitch is that Florida and the Southeast remain underserved by venture capitalists. Hence the opportunity for Mayport.

For the Rice duo, the timing of their new enterprise could be tricky. With the economy slowing and the IPO market all but dead, finding strong investment candidates will be a challenge.

For now, Rice still comes to work at Bank of America in Jacksonville to the same office he occupied as Barnett CEO. On the 42nd floor, Rice's is the only office. He shares the floor with a secretary, a receptionist and a security guard.

Pretty lonely quarters. It's a good thing Rice's new enterprise is not called Maytag Venture Partners.

* * *

This past year was a very, very good year for the big boys at St. Petersburg's Raymond James Financial. Investment company chief Tom James enjoyed a 75 percent jump in compensation last year to $2.5-million, aided by a $2.2-million bonus. Several other top execs enjoyed bonuses of nearly $1-million more than they received in 1999.

And why not? After starting 2000 at a paltry $16 a share or so, Raymond James stock is trading at more than $40. Not bad in a year when most bay area stocks took a flying leap off a cliff.

On the other hand, an investor who placed $100 in Raymond James in 1995 would have a stake worth $365 at the end of 2000. But the same investment in a pool of regional securities firms would have turned into a $427 investment, while an index of the overall securities industry would have delivered a sum of $580.

To Raymond James' credit, the company has assembled a board with plenty of in-demand directors. Elaine L. Chao, a director since 1998, came close this month to being named secretary of transportation by President-elect George W. Bush. Chao, wife of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was deputy transportation secretary in the first Bush administration. But this week, the job was handed to Norman Y. Mineta, President Clinton's secretary of commerce and a Democrat that Bush needed to broaden his Cabinet.

At the company's annual meeting in February, Raymond James wants to increase the size of its board by two to 15 directors. Among the new directors expected to join: Hardwick Simmons, the former head of the Prudential Securities brokerage firm. Last month, Simmons was chosen to become the next CEO of the Nasdaq Stock Market. Simmons takes over in February and will help convert the Nasdaq into a publicly traded company.

Raymond James says it's only too happy to have Simmons come aboard -- if there is no conflict with his new job running the No. 2 U.S. stock market. Raymond James trades on the New York Stock Exchange.

Short takes

Tampa's Outback Steakhouse was not the only local restaurant chain targeted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to take steps to ensure their meat suppliers are not needlessly abusing animals before they are slaughtered. Clearwater's Checkers Drive-In Restaurants also is one of 15 chains to feel PETA's pressure. . . . In another sign that a speedy image is very hip, Clearwater's Sterile Recoveries Inc., a hospital supply company, wants to change its name to SRI/Surgical Express Inc. . . .

From frying pan into the fire? When John Koehler ran his small computer network monitoring company, Clearwater's TechForce Corp., he complained that Wall Street ignored companies as small as his. So he sold it. Now Koehler has rejoined an old employer, Largo's struggling Paradyne Networks, to help revive its line of telecommunications products. Paradyne's stock hasn't gotten much respect lately from Wall Street investors, either. . . .

As a subsidiary of Progress Energy, the new owner of Florida Power Corp., Carolina Power & Light won regulatory permission (despite local protests) last month to double its storage capacity for highly radioactive waste at one of its North Carolina plant sites. . . . Environmental regulators nailed TECO's Tampa Electric with a $1-billion settlement last year for coal-burning pollution. Now it's Duke Energy's turn. In a recent lawsuit, the Environmental Protection Agency charged Duke with running its coal-fired power plants in violation of the Clean Air Act. Duke's trying to push into the Florida power market.

- Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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