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Execs flinch in brave new tech world

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 2000


Nine months ago, I chronicled the exodus of four talented area executives from traditional corporations (that actually made money) to the brave new but rarely profitable world of Internet start-ups. The four were part of a national trend.

"Memo to old economy corporations," I wrote last March. "Get used to the brain drain."

Well, it's humble pie time.

The four have fled the dot-com businesses they once embraced. The allure, the potential -- and, oh yeah, the venture capital -- are long gone.

In late 2000, we're learning what "Internet" really stands for:

If Not Today, Escape Risky Net Enterprises Tomorrow.

Let's catch up with our Fab Four, our former dot-com whiz kids:

FRANK NEWMAN: After resigning last spring as president and CEO of Largo-based Eckerd Corp., the nation's fourth-biggest drugstore chain, Newman headed west to San Francisco to run more.com.

And why not? With Newman's juicy employment agreement to run more.com, an online retailing start-up, you'd pack your bags, too.

"Your initial base salary will be $500,000 per year. . . . You will also receive a $1-million "sign-on' bonus payable on your start date . . . a guaranteed $250,000 bonus payable within 30 days of the anniversary of your start date (oops) . . . pension and health benefits, health club . . . cell phone, laptop . . . and (for) relocation from Largo, Florida, to the San Francisco Bay area, an allowance of $500,000 (keep what you don't use). . . ."

More.com was slaughtered in this year's stock market decline. Newman laid off a third of his staff in June. Newman himself lasted just eight months before online drugstore competitor HealthCentral.com bought up some of the remaining assets of more.com in October. Newman clearly walked away from more.com wealthier for the brief tenure. He has yet to surface at another corporation.

ELLEN MARRAM: After she turned Tropicana Beverage Group in Bradenton into a global juice industry leader, Marram began looking for bigger game. Instead, she opted for an electronic-commerce venture called efdex that aimed to revolutionize the food and drink distribution business.

Marram soon found she wanted to move on.

Now Marram is a general partner at North Castle Partners, an investment firm in Greenwich, Conn. And she is back to her true love: building a specialty beverage empire. This month's acquisition of Fantasia Fresh Juice Co. joins North Castle's other beverage lines -- Naked Juice, M.H. Zeigler and Sons, Orchid Island Juice Co., Saratoga Beverage Group and Wiman Beverage Co. Her company is the country's largest fresh and refrigerated premium beverage business.

MARY ALICE TAYLOR: The former Citigroup exec left her Tampa job and tony Avila home to run the young grocery-delivery dot.com called HomeGrocer.com in Washington state. Taylor's logistics expertise was there, but customer acceptance and adequate financial backing were not.

An online competitor called Webvan Group bought HomeGrocer.com in September. Taylor was out of a job. This week, HomeGrocer.com laid off 100 more employees at its headquarters as struggling Webvan tries to make a go of a difficult business niche.

Webvan, which traded as high as $22 a share in the past year, closed Thursday at 41 cents a share. Taylor remains a Webvan board member.

JOE TROY: After handling the tasks of treasurer at Walter Industries, Tampa's long-struggling housing and industrial conglomerate, Troy jumped at the chance to flex his wings at Tampa's funky Gold Standard Multimedia. After dealing with building products, who wouldn't have fun working for a company that lets online medical subscribers dissect 3-D cadavers over the Internet?

Troy was supposed to prep the company for going public. Then the IPO market tanked.

What to do? Last month, Troy rejoined Walter, a company that's attempting its own comeback with a new management team.

Memo to old economy corporations: Never mind.

Short takes

Allen Questrom, who took over running J.C. Penney Co. in September, is careful not to trash his predecessors. But he's obviously puzzled about the purchase of the Largo-based, money-losing Eckerd drug store chain. Questrom told the Dallas Morning News this week that he understood the strategy that aging baby boomers should boost the drugstore business. But he did question the timing of the Eckerd deal. By 1997, Penney's was already struggling on its own. . . .

Talk about timing. Former Sarasota banker John M. Reich was confirmed last week by the Senate to the board of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Most recently, Reich was chief of staff to Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla. At the FDIC, he gets to watch the banking industry struggle with its first serious downturn in almost a decade. . . .

Former Barnett Bank executive and St. Petersburg's Northeast High School graduate Stephen Hansel spent most of the 1990s trying to whip New Orleans-based Hibernia Corp. into better banking shape. This week, the 52-year-old called it quits, but said he wants to stay in the banking business. No word if he's heading back to the Sunshine State. . . .

Holy peanuts! Southwest Airlines Co. appears headed toward its worst on-time performance this year since 1991. For the month of October, the airline ranked No. 7 with 71-percent on-time flights. For the past year ending in October, Southwest ranked No. 5 at 76.5 percent. . . .

Baseball stadium envy? New baseball stadium plans are proliferating. And the Florida Marlins (soon to be the Miami Marlins) are pushing to build a new $385-million (at least!) stadium with a retractable roof in downtown Miami. How long will it take before the Tampa Bay Devil Rays start making noise for a new ballpark of their own?

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

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