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Bay area believe it or nots

If you have an interest in the strange, unusual, interesting, odd and just plain weird, well, you've certainly come to the right place! - Ripley's Believe It or Not!

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    By ROBERT TRIGAUX

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 3, 2001


    Hurry, hurry, hurry. Step right up to this year's annual Times 50 rankings!

    Come gape and wonder at what lurks behind the performances of the Tampa Bay area's biggest and best performing public companies. Be amazed by rebounding businesses long thought to lack a pulse. Prepare to be scared witless by once top-ranked Times 50 enterprises that seem to disappear before your very eyes.

    Today's ranking of corporations in this business section is an annual litmus test of who's in and who's out of the bay area business scene. And it's one of many ways the Times tries to answer that ever-changing regional economic question . . .

    As a business community, who are we?

    Which is why a Ripley's Believe It or Not! theme seems so appropriate. Today's Times 50 list may boast no shrunken heads or 8-foot humans, but the rankings do chronicle some of the fastest shrinking and growing public corporations.

    Like a museum of the bizarre, the bay area economy is made up of a remarkably diverse and unusual mix of businesses -- optical network testers to umbilical cord blood products, oxygen delivery to Bloomin' Onions.

    Tickets, please. The show's about to begin.

    Believe it or not: You would have had to invest $10,000 each in shares of six local heavyweights -- TECO Energy, Tech Data, Jabil Circuit, Raymond James Financial, Brown & Brown and Lincare Holdings, ranked No. 2 through No. 7 on the Times 50 list -- over the past two years just to equal the return of a single $10,000 investment in Digital Lightwave during the same period.

    Alas, it's not every day that a $10,000 stake in one company turns into $105,250 in just two years (especially if you were lucky enough to time your investment accordingly). Clearwater's Digital Lightwave delivered just such a stunning 952.5 percent return. That's a big reason the maker of optical network testing equipment ranked No. 1 among local companies in this year's Times 50.

    That kind of extraordinary return creates some unusual pressures on a company. For example, how does Digital Lightwave motivate, much less keep, so many employees at all levels who became paper millionaires from such a run-up in company stock? Rapid success has its own set of challenges.

    Will Digital Lightwave have the legs to stick around atop the Times 50 for a while? Can it expand a high-in-demand but narrow product line to protect itself from competition and the hot-today, obsolete-tomorrow stresses of new technology?

    Digital Lightwave chief executive Gerry Chastelet has one word for his corporate culture: paranoia. As in constantly looking over the shoulder to see if any competitor is sneaking up.

    So far, Digital Lightwave looks promising -- but young. It ranked No. 2 in last year's Times 50 list. And the year before? It ranked No. 49.

    Believe it or not: Revenues of Clearwater's Tech Data Corp. hit $20.4-billion last year. That's bigger than the combined revenues of all of the other 29 locally based companies ranked this year.

    If there's one local indicator of the rapid rise of technology, it's Tech Data. The company, a huge international wholesale distributor of computer equipment, has grown at warp speed for years. In the mid-1990s this newspaper wrote stories anticipating the day when Tech Data caught area leader Florida Progress Corp. in revenues. Well, by the time Florida Progress was purchased by out-of-staters last year, Tech Data's revenues were nearly four times the size of its nearest local competitor's.

    Statewide, Tech Data just missed becoming Florida's No. 1 company in revenues last year to Wayne Huizenga's nationwide car business, AutoNation of Fort Lauderdale. Odds look good Tech Data soon will be No. 1 and looking in its rear view mirror at AutoNation.

    Believe it or not: Two local companies -- a fast-food burgermaker and an electronics assembler -- were in such sorry shape in 1999 that they did not even show up on last year's list. This year, we're talking big comeback. Clearwater's (soon to relocate to Tampa) Checkers Drive-In Restaurants and Tampa's Reptron Electronics roared past dozens of companies on the latest Times 50 list to join the top 10 (Checkers at No. 8 and Reptron at No. 9).

    C'mon, that's got to be a joke. Checkers barely made the Times 50 in 1999 at No. 48 and failed to make the ranking at all in 1998. Hats off to Dan "Mr. Fix It" Dorsch, who took over as Checkers CEO in late 1999 and since tripled the stock price.

    Reptron hadn't even made the rankings since '98, when it was listed at a lowly No. 42. The improving electronics manufacturer competes in one of the toughest markets, made worse by the recent technology slowdown.

    Believe it or not: Of the top 30 local companies in 1997, the first year the Times 50 analysis ranked companies by performance, only half remain on this year's list. And five of the then-top 10 are gone. Among the most prominent ranked in 1997 that are now gone by acquisition, poor performance or relocation: No. 3 IMC Mortgage (struggled, then acquired), No. 4 Coast Dental Services (weak performer), No. 6 Kaydon Corp. (relocated), No. 8 Reflectone (acquired), No. 10 Shells Seafood Restaurants (struggling, removed from Nasdaq stock market) and No. 27 Florida Progress (acquired).

    Believe it or not: Of the 30 local companies on this year's Times 50, one-third (10 of them) were money losers for investors, based on their most recent two-year return. The worst returns: copier service provider Danka Business Systems (off 79 percent); corporate call center operator Sykes Enterprises (off 72 percent); copier service provider Global Imaging Systems (off 65 percent); and tech consultants IMRglobal (off 50 percent and being acquired by a Canadian company).

    Wimpy returns were not limited to local companies. Six of the 20 top companies operating here that are based elsewhere had negative stock returns over the past two years. The worst: insurance giant Aegon (off 27 percent), Sears and Bank of America (both off nearly 16 percent).

    Believe it or not: Five area companies ranked on last year's Times 50 -- No. 8 Paradyne Networks, No. 21 Republic Bancshares, No. 25 Walter Industries, No. 26 PowerCerv and No. 28 Insurance Management Solutions -- struggled and failed to qualify for this year's ranking.

    Paradyne toppled the most after watching its primary "DSL" business (providing speedy Internet access over copper telephone lines) collapse. Overstretched Republic continues to clean up its portfolio of troubled loans, sell off far-flung branches and build its new management team. Walter is trying to stabilize after a period of major CEO turnover. Long-struggling Insurance Management and PowerCerv still are looking for strategies to get out of the breakdown lane.

    Believe it or not: What we now take for granted did not exist just a few years ago. In 1997, the Times 50 list for the first time included the Web site addresses of the ranked companies. Of the 50 local companies then listed, 27 -- 54 percent -- had yet to establish a Web site. Among those tardy on the Internet side: three of the top 10 companies, including No. 1 Jabil Circuit. (Jabil established a Web site before the 1998 Times 50.)

    In contrast, what once was in short supply remains so today. In the 1997 Times 50, just one woman executive -- Stella Thayer, chairwoman of Reflectone -- was listed among local companies. In today's rankings, the names of only two women appear: Janice Smallacombe, a senior vice president of Maritrans Inc., and Wanda Dearth, president of tiny Cryo-Cell International. And among the 20 ranked companies based elsewhere, no female executives are listed.

    Even Ripley might find that hard to believe.

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

     

     

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