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10 Tampa Bay area business leaders to watch

Creating fantastic parks within Dubai's own fantasy world. Matchmaking Tampa Bay with MIT- and Stanford- inspired technology. Dissecting the nation's financial bailout package. Daring to unveil a brand-new regional mall amid a retailing recession. Buying an area brokerage as Wall Street starts to melt. Plotting a comeback for alternative newspapers. Advancing food safety tech for strawberries. Advising investors on plummeting commodities. Who are these folks? They and others make up our latest "Ten People To Watch" list of Tampa Bay business innovators and managers fighting the status quo and toughing it out in this especially challenging economy.

Donnie Mills, general manager of Tampa's Busch Gardens Africa and Adventure Island, is in for a major adventure himself. After 34 years in theme park management, including stints at SeaWorld San Diego and Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., Mills is busy prepping to relocate in another year or so to Dubai as managing director of Worlds of Discovery Dubai — four adjacent theme parks to be built on a man-made, Shamu-shaped island.

Mills, 50, and wife Norene already have visited construction-obsessed Dubai, having brushed up on Middle Eastern customs in advance. They studied the language via Rosetta Stone software, at least enough to get some idea of the topics of conversation around them. When invited to a Dubai home for dinner, the couple entered the house, as is customary, via separate entrances. Mills was already aware of the three traditional dining positions while sitting on the floor. And when the couple were taken out into the desert to observe some horses and enjoy a sunset, Mills marveled at how the sand left no part of his body untouched.

A graduate of Tampa's King High School and USF's business school, Mills is a terrific example for all of us of an area executive who's discovered how small the world is becoming (even with a 14-hour flight to Dubai). He's got the smarts and experience to bring the entertainment thrill to Dubai, and that nation has the passion and resources to make it happen at an astonishing pace. Talk about global influences. Belgium-based InBev is buying Anheuser-Busch (shareholders vote next month), which owns the Busch theme parks. And rumors persist beermaker InBev may sell off Busch's theme parks, because they are not something the new company knows much about. Who says the world is flat? For Mills, it's one rip-roarin' roller coaster after another.

Gary Wishnatzki of Wishnatzki Farms, the biggest seller of strawberries in Florida, grew worried when he saw how Florida's tomato growers got slammed when federal investigators first fingered the state's industry as the source of salmonella hitting consumers. It wasn't Florida tomatoes (try Mexican peppers), but the damage was done. Wishnatzki's developed a new system that links a strawberry picker's personal bar code to each flat of strawberries picked. That will help with "tracebacks" — tracking the precise source of food in the event of an outbreak. But Wishnatzki, 53, sees his new system most improving his ties to consumers (via a posted Web site) who eat his strawberries. That lets his Plant City company boost quality control and know which types of strawberries are most popular. The new system, FreshQC, kicks in with the start of the strawberry harvest in December.

It's not as if Greg Lenners, general manager of the soon-to-debut Shops at Wiregrass near Wesley Chapel, has not done mall openings before. He was at the Simi Valley Town Center opening in Southern California in 2005, and others before that. The difference this time, of course, is the flattened Florida economy. For east Pasco County, long viewed as rural turf turned suburban bedroom community, Shops at Wiregrass is a coming-of-age event. Hefty local shopping choices without relying on Hillsborough or Pinellas counties! And Lenners, 42, is expected to deliver. The outdoor mall's 68 shops and restaurants enjoy an official ribbon cutting in just 11 days. If you shop there, buy the mall a good luck charm.

"History-making" is how James Cordier, president and head trader of Tampa's Liberty Trading Group, describes the recently crazed markets. Here's a guy whose name seems to appear in almost every "how high will gas prices go" story of the past few years. Now he's called and asked "how low will they go" given the plummeting price of oil. One thing is certain: Cordier, a commodities broker who focuses on options and futures trading, stands to profit in volatile markets. Well, he must be in heaven now. In his recent columns dating back to August, his group has recommended getting short euros, silver and unleaded gasoline, respectively. "As these markets have all collapsed in recent weeks," Cordier, 46, wrote in his weekly newsletter report, "our strategy for profiting from the fall now looks a bit conservative."

Reading about the federal mega bailout is one thing. Understanding how it really works is another. Enter lawyer Sandra Porter, 49, a Carlton Fields partner in Tampa who's just finished a white paper at the request of the American Bar Association. The title may not be scintillating — Positioning Real Estate and Lending Practitioners to Respond to the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 — but it's a critical, 26-page "how to" guide on the biggest financial fix-it rescue package in a generation. Imagine playing Dungeons and Dragons without instructions. Then multiply that by 100. You catch my drift.

Ben Eason, 44, runs the Creative Loafing alternative newspaper empire out of Tampa. And it was his recent decision, under pressure of debts too big to pay, to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for his media company. A victim of the lousy economy and credit crunch? Yes. A victim of overextending the business last year by purchasing two larger alternatives, the Washington City Paper and the Chicago Reader? No argument here. Eason's since been raked through the alt-world coals by critics convinced he's trying to make a comeback by maximizing "aggregation" (reprinting or linking to content published elsewhere) and minimizing original (and more expensive) content. There's the twist: Journalists (who produce content) insisting the alt-future is content. What a surprise.

John Sykes, founder and former CEO of Tampa's Sykes Enterprises, has enjoyed a prosperous and successful career building a call-center business that's now run by his son, Chuck Sykes. The elder Sykes even has an entire business school named after him at the University of Tampa, and he's been a prominent philanthropist on his old turf in Charlotte, N.C. So why is he leading a local investment group and acquiring a controlling stake in the parent of Tampa brokerage GunnAllen Financial? Sykes, 72, said in September that he wants to turn GunnAllen into a national player. Of course, that was before this fall's Wall Street meltdown.

It's a good thing Judy Mitchell, 54, is CEO of Peter R. Brown Construction in Clearwater. She also co-chairs A Baseball Community Inc., the new group of area business leaders looking at ways to build (get it?) more community support for the Tampa Bay Rays and, perhaps in the not-so-distant future, a new stadium for the team. Obviously, it helps if the Rays make it to the World Series, but let's get real. This year's already been a runaway hit for the franchise. The baseball group met again Friday, but it's still just getting organized. The committee will pick up steam once the baseball season ends. The Rays still see it as their ticket to a new ballpark.

Newcomer cutting-edge tech firms SRI of California and Draper Laboratory of Cambridge, Mass., claim ties to Stanford and MIT, respectively. But what they also have in common is Len Polizzotto, now Draper's head of business development. His roots can be found years ago at Polaroid where, as new business development chief, he helped lead the painful journey from a business model based on the quick-developing snapshot to the digital world. He was SRI vice president when that company negotiated economic development incentives from the city and state, leading to SRI putting down roots in St. Petersburg. Now at Draper, which has plans for both Hills­borough and Pinellas counties, Polizzotto's helping show off the company's technology, from robotics to microelectromechanical systems, at an open house this Tuesday (1-4 p.m.) and Wednesday (9 a.m. to 4 p.m.) at USF, 3802 Spectrum Blvd. in Tampa.

After a period of low-key activity, Al Pina, who heads the Florida Minority Community Reinvestment Coalition, is starting to raise the group's profile. Why? Because California-based banking company Wells Fargo is on a fast track to acquire struggling Wachovia Bank, a move that by early 2009 will make Wells one of Florida's biggest financial institutions. Pina, 46, well known for his grass roots style (and occasional hunger strike) of influencing bank behavior in Florida, is not happy with Wells Fargo's track record in the Sunshine State. "During the last decade, Wells Fargo and its home mortgage broker affiliates have exploited Florida as a distant colony and have engaged in global absentee landlord practices that harm the economy of Florida," he wrote Florida congressman Robert Wexler last week. Pina's asking for Congress to hold a hearing on why the Federal Reserve approved the Wells-Wachovia deal without allowing public comment. Hey, there's nothing wrong with keeping giant banks accountable. Just ask the taxpayers.

Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]

10 Tampa Bay area business leaders to watch 10/18/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 20, 2008 12:08pm]
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