10 who made a difference in 2010 on the Tampa Bay business scene

In 2010, Florida's economy struggled with a growing housing crisis and historically high unemployment. • Locally, the tourist industry fought a rising tide of misperceptions in the wake of a catastrophic oil spill, and a failed rail transportation initiative threw business leaders back to square one. • Here are 10 people who made their imprint on that fast-changing business landscape this year, not always for the better.

1 Karen Jaroch, 46, organizer of the Tampa 9-12 Project and a co-founder of the No Tax for Tracks political action committee, Tampa.

No Tax for Tracks was the grass roots group that helped soundly defeat better funded backers of a 1 percent sales surtax for a light rail and enhanced bus and road proposal on the November ballot in Hillsborough County. Jaroch also helps run the Tampa 9-12 Project, a 2,000-member arm of a national group eager to shrink the size and role of government.

Lesson? Aided by broad antitax sentiment, even the little guys sometimes win. "We have had to cut back at home in this economy, and so should the government," Jaroch says. The industrial engineer worked at tech firms such as Texas Instruments before staying home to raise four kids. When her engineer husband lost his job, they cashed out their 401(k) savings. Now the two hope to start Tampa Engineering Associates. None of that will slow Jaroch's fight against any revivals of light rail.

2 David Hollander, 51, marine geochemist, University of South Florida College of Marine Sciences, St. Petersburg.

Hollander labored off the radar screen until his summer analysis of the BP oil spill impact on the Gulf of Mexico propelled St. Petersburg's brainiac marine scientists into the mainstream. USF provided the first official confirmation that BP's Deepwater Horizon spill was the source of the undersea oil plumes snaking through the gulf depths. And Hollander was an early critic of a federal report claiming most of the spill was already gone from the gulf. Hollander called the finding ludicrous and later warned the food web for gulf marine life may be imperiled.

Lesson? The BP spill revealed both the depth of expertise and backbone of USF's marine sciences faculty. Hollander's findings could increase the fine BP may end up paying for damaging the gulf.

3 Matt Weidner, 38, Law Office of Matthew Weidner, St. Petersburg.

The vocal Florida lawyer foresaw the looming legal disaster spawned by a mortgage foreclosure process rife with "robo-signers" and "foreclosure mill" law firms. From a modest office on Central Avenue, Weidner defends homeowners pressed by mortgage lenders. He's also criticized the rise of "rocket dockets" in Florida courts for being more eager to clear foreclosure backlogs than judge the merits of individual cases. His insights and legal drama — just read his blog — earned him frequent coverage not only by the Florida media, but also from the New York Times and ABC's Good Morning America.

Lessons? He warned early on that a corrupted legal process could endanger the country's ability to identify true owners of property. It's further evidence that the collapsed housing market did not need to get so out of hand.

4 Renee Benton Gilmore, 52, former CEO and president, Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance, Tampa.

Gilmore stepped down in February just before the Workforce Alliance board planned to discuss suspending her for questionable spending practices. How questionable? Try more than $99,000 spent by the alliance on food and beverage.

Lesson? Never run a taxpayer-supported enterprise with the flair and budget blindness of a large private corporation. Worse, the Workforce Alliance program suffered a credibility hit from Gilmore's excess.

5 Ratan Tata, 62, CEO, Tata Group, Mumbai, India.

How did a guy in India make this list? Because his giant Tata Group owns one of the world's biggest outsourcing firms that's now vacuuming hundreds of higher-wage Tampa Bay jobs from companies looking to save money. This year's whopper outsourcing deal involved PriceWaterhouseCoopers' decision to lay off 500 information technology workers, many of them from Tampa Bay.

Lesson? A double whammy, as one of the biggest area layoffs in 2010 also involves good-paying IT jobs. PriceWaterhouseCoopers' move could well be copied by other firms now worried their own costs may be too high.

6 Jeff Vinik, 51, owner, Tampa Bay Lightning.

Vinik's purchase of the National Hockey League franchise here quickly revealed how the Bolts had been, as the Times' own hockey reporter called it, a "dysfunctional mess." Vinik, who now runs a hedge fund, stabilized a reeling NHL team, now rebounded and scrapping to be No. 1 in its division.

Lesson? He's got a long history of picking undervalued assets. Maybe that's why the Lightning franchise, which he bought for an estimated $93 million, is already valued by Forbes magazine at $145 million.

7 D.T. Minich, 47, director, convention and visitor's bureau for Pinellas County.

Just because the BP oil spill hit portions of the Panhandle beaches did not mean that the Pinellas beach economy escaped financial woes. Oil or no oil, Minich was not letting BP off the hook. "Even more is needed as we move into the national and international feeder markets that comprise the bulk of visitation to our area in fall and winter," he wrote to the company.

Lesson? The squeaky wheel gets the oil … compensation. Minich pointed out that Pinellas could face as much as a 25 percent drop in tourism if officials don't advertise that oil from the gulf spill is nowhere near the county's beaches.

8 Charles "Chuck" Sykes, 47, CEO of Sykes Enterprises, Tampa.

Nobody in the 2010 business community had his hands in more regional economic development pies, from rail to baseball to soccer. Sykes this month even started an unusual second term as chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. He's in line to head the regional Tampa Bay Partnership soon. He also led the charge for FIFA soccer in Tampa, and just announced the chamber wants to get openly involved to find the best way to keep the Tampa Bay Rays in the metro area.

Lesson? Sykes has a can-do streak that earns him praise at a time when the entire Tampa Bay area needs more business leaders to stretch this region. Maybe that's why Sykes dominated the responses to the January 2010 St. Petersburg Times survey of business managers when they were asked: Who's an emerging leader here?

9 Stephen Klasko, 57, USF Health senior vice president, USF College of Medicine dean, Tampa.

USF's Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation, which breaks ground in January in downtown Tampa, will be a go-to place for surgeons and their teams nationwide to receive training in advanced surgical and robotics techniques. Klasko wants to stake an early claim in high-tech surgical training.

Why put it downtown? It's smart business. It's an easy shot from Tampa International Airport. It's close to upscale hotels — key to catering to visiting surgical teams — while the nearby St. Pete Times Forum and Channelside district offer entertainment options.

Lesson? Klasko wants the center run like a business, without subsidies. If it works, USF becomes a more entrepreneurial university. The center's also sure to boost Tampa's barren stretch between the Fort Brooke parking garage and the St. Pete Times Forum. And it's a USF foothold for future downtown expansion.

10 Ami Forte, Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, Palm Harbor.

In Barron's ranking of the top 100 female financial advisers, Forte ranked No. 2 nationally last year behind some California hotshot in Beverly Hills. This year, Forte broke through to No. 1 on Barron's list. She's come a long way from the early days of 1994 making cold calls to strangers trying to sell municipal bonds. Now her clients typically boast net worths of $30 million.

Lesson? Tampa Bay's always looking for a winner here who stands out at the national level. Forte says her secret is "managing to the downside." That means it's worth forfeiting some upside gains if the client is protected against big downside losses. That, pardon the pun, is Ami's forte.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

10 who made a difference in 2010 on the Tampa Bay business scene 12/23/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 24, 2010 6:36pm]

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