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Chamber president forced out

Jay Garner's aggressive style drew many complaints from a business community that now must refocus.

By KYLE PARKS

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 5, 2001


TAMPA -- Jay Garner, the aggressive executive who arrived seven months ago to jump-start the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, has resigned unexpectedly.

In revealing his departure, chamber officials said Thursday that Garner, 44, decided to pursue "personal opportunities." But it's clear the chamber president, who didn't return calls for comment, was forced out by a Tampa business community that quickly tired of his hard-charging style.

The turmoil at the Tampa chamber is a blow for the Tampa Bay area. With 2,300 business members, it is one of the most important business groups in Florida. Garner's departure may set back its goals of helping the area attract more technology and attack such issues as education and creating more high-paying jobs.

Garner arrived in May with great fanfare from the Asheville, N.C., chamber. He promised to enlarge Tampa's chamber to 4,000 members in five years, to get it involved in the high-tech world and to change its reputation as a sleepy organization known for happy talk and social events.

But as he brought in new managers and talked about such plans as creating a club to stimulate venture capital investments, Garner also got into a series of personal battles that eventually cost him his job.

Former Gov. Bob Martinez, the chamber's volunteer chairman, wouldn't go into details Thursday about the reasons behind Garner's departure.

"There were meetings related to how he was doing, and out of that, Jay made a decision to not go forward in the job," Martinez said.

In the end, Garner's departure was prompted by the style he used in dealing with chamber board members and the business community. He can have a short temper, and it flared up in several public incidents.

"You can't run a membership organization by p------ people off," said Charlie Reese, the chamber's former communications director. "There were just so many complaints around town," said Reese, who now works for the Tampa-based Institute for Business and Home Safety.

When Garner changed the rules for the chamber's Small Business of the Year contest, longtime member Jeffrey Mount, who owns Wright's Gourmet House, complained. After Mount and Garner had a run-in on the phone, Mount quit the chamber and wrote a letter to then-chairman Bill McBride, saying Garner was "unfit" to lead the chamber.

Garner also had a feud with the Tampa Marriott Waterside after the hotel told the chamber it would have to move the site of its annual meeting.

Mount said Thursday he felt little satisfaction in the news. "I don't like to dance on anyone's grave," he said. "I would have liked to have seen him work through his problems, but maybe this is an opportunity for growth, both for him and the community."

Other chamber officials wouldn't comment publicly Thursday about Garner's departure. But over the past month or so, he lost the support of a number of members of the chamber's Board of Governors, the group of volunteer business leaders that sets the organization's course.

Eventually, that apparently led to a change in how chamber leaders Martinez and McBride, the head of the Holland & Knight law firm, viewed Garner's performance.

Garner worked out his resignation in mid-December. After the group's annual meeting, he was a conspicuous no-show at several high-profile holiday events: a chamber Christmas party at the University Club and a party hosted by McBride at his Thonotosassa home.

The chamber didn't release details of Garner's severance agreement, but he will be retained as a consultant for a few months. Garner, who was making a six-figure salary, paid about $500,000 for a house in the swank Avila subdivision in October, according to Hillsborough County property records.

Now, the chamber hopes to move quickly to find a replacement. When Garner was hired, the group made a decision to go with an out-of-towner who had extensive economic development experience. In the process, it bypassed several local finalists, including Kim Scheeler, president of the United Way of Hillsborough County.

Chamber leaders may be inclined to go back to those finalists as it starts a new search, mindful that some in town still remember the very public forced departure of then-president Harvey Schmitt seven years ago.

Like Garner, Schmitt came into Tampa with an aggressive attitude and big plans. But he ran into personality conflicts with the chamber's volunteer leaders and questions about the organization's declining finances.

Schmitt, who since has been successful running the Raleigh, N.C., chamber, was replaced by Don Barber, a no-nonsense executive who focused on internal operational issues. Barber's retirement led to the hiring of Garner.

Under Garner's watch, the chamber's net assets have slipped to about $1.25-million from $2-million, partly because the organization forecasts a loss of $552,249 for 2000.

But that performance wasn't a factor in the decision to oust Garner. Most of the loss can be attributed to a $369,177 increase in administration costs, largely due to one-time expenses related to hiring, relocations and severance as Garner shuffled the staff of 35 people.

In fact, Garner drew praise from board members for making the books better reflect reality: Part of last year's loss was due to a restatement of membership dues that had been collected in 1999 but had been counted as 2000 revenue.

Garner also is given credit for creating a five-year plan for the chamber's future and bringing in consultants who told the chamber how to improve its recruitment of members and new companies.

Through another of Garner's initiatives, plans are being made for a group of chamber officials to visit either Austin, Texas, or Portland, Ore., this year to get ideas on how to better plan the area's growth. And Garner moved to form partnerships with chambers around Hillsborough County and in Pinellas County.

Still, Garner didn't pick his battles well.

He often acknowledged that his style rubbed a lot of people the wrong way but attributed many of the problems to the reluctance of some business leaders to change. "After we get out of hibernation, some people are grumpy," he said in November.

- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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