Sunday Conversation: Joe Lopano is bringing Tampa International Airport into the future

Joe Lopano, Tampa International Airport chief executive officer, said one reason he left Dallas-Fort Worth to come here is that the airport and the community are the right size. Times (2013)
Joe Lopano, Tampa International Airport chief executive officer, said one reason he left Dallas-Fort Worth to come here is that the airport and the community are the right size.Times (2013)
Published February 3 2017
Updated February 3 2017

Joe Lopano has been busy. Since taking over as chief executive of the Tampa International Airport in 2011, he and his team have landed more than a dozen new flights, including a handful of high-profile international routes to Frankfurt, Panama City and most recently to Havana, Cuba. Lopano has also spearheaded the single largest airport renovation — a $1 billion overhaul — since the terminal was built in 1971.

Later this month, Lopano will be honored as the 2017 Person of Vision by Preserve Vision Florida. The award is given out each year to someone in the community who has had a profound impact on the region or state through community leadership and vision.

Lopano, 61, talked to Tampa Bay Times business reporter, Justine Griffin, about what it's like to be a CEO and his life in Florida. Here are excerpts.

What was your first impression of Tampa as a city when you decided to move here six-plus years ago?

My first impression of Tampa Bay was actually from about nine or 10 years ago when I came here for a soccer tournament with my youngest son. It was held at USF and we stayed at the Embassy Suites downtown by the convention center. I remember going for a walk in the morning along the channel and down toward Amalie Arena and thinking to myself, "Man, this place is really nice." It wasn't like Miami or Fort Lauderdale where it's really crowded all the time. I made a mental note then that I wouldn't mind ending up here one day. So when the headhunter called me and said there was a job here, it made a lot of sense.

How do you describe Tampa Bay to out-of-towners now as a resident?

It's a very dynamic place right now and becoming a lot more youthful. If you like the outdoors, to walk, to bike, kayak, swim, golf or play tennis, this is your place. It's one of the best places to live if you like being active.

Why did you want to come to Tampa? You worked at a much larger airport in Dallas-Fort Worth.

I wanted to be a CEO, and I wasn't one in Dallas. What I liked about the Tampa airport was that it was a manageable-sized airport. I knew I could come in and have a positive impact quickly. I liked that it wasn't massive, that there's no airline hub here, and I liked the governance structure with a board of directors. But the main reason was I saw a chance to make a real contribution.

When did you know you wanted to work in the airline business?

I majored in finance in college. When I graduated, I was working as a photographer for Gannett newspapers as a stringer. I was chasing ambulances and plane crashes as a way to make money. I had a choice of going into photography full time or I had an opportunity to work at Pan Am, but not in management. It was in the mail room. I decided I could always do photography as a backup plan, and decided to go for business. My father was in aviation so I knew what it was about. I got promoted six months later and moved into auditing, which meant I got to fly all over the world on Pam Am 747s. That's when I fell in love with the job. But I do still shoot photos.

What has been the most challenging part of the job as CEO of TIA?

The biggest challenge, and also the biggest reward, was getting the master plan project off the ground and selling it to our board, our community and our political leaders. It's a project much bigger than anything we've ever done before. The largest project at the airport in the past was in the $150 to $200 million range. This is a $1 billion project, and naturally, it gets a lot of attention. I'm proud of my team, who did the due diligence to answer all the questions. Now it's our biggest reward and a source of pride.

Do you have a favorite Tampa sports team?

My favorite sport to play is golf. But to watch, it's football. I grew up in New York so I was a Jets fan, but since I've been down here I have to say I'm a Bucs fan. My son played football for the University of Pennsylvania in college and had a tryout with the Bucs, so now they're my favorite team. The football games here are a lot of fun. But right behind football is hockey. I have to give a shout out to the Lightning.

What's your favorite spot in Tampa?

There's a few. I love the Sail Pavilion. When we first moved here we lived on Harbour Island and rode our bikes past there a lot. Now with the extension of the Riverwalk, we love going all the way to Ulele. I love Bayshore Boulevard, too. That's near where I live, and it's where I do my morning constitutional walk. When you see the sun rise over the bay, it's pretty cool.

What's your opinion on the state of transportation in Tampa Bay?

It's the No. 1 issue here as a community. We're bringing more and more people here on airplanes, and I want them to be able to experience the Florida I experienced as a younger person. That means good highways to move freely as you wish. But that's not the case anymore. It's all traffic and gridlock. We have to fix this problem. I don't have the answer, but I think there are enough people involved now that recognized this is an issue. We'll come to a solution.

A story I've heard you tell in the past is how you came to work everyday in the mail room at Pan Am in a three-piece suit with a Wall Street Journal in your hand. What advice do you have for young professionals with aspirations to be a CEO one day?

My son is a young investment banker now and I've been working with him on his resume. What I tell my son is to go somewhere that's exciting and do something that's exciting. Don't do something just for the paycheck. You only get one shot at this, so go do the things that make you happy. There are plenty of opportunities to do things that are exciting. That might not be at a Fortune 500 company, but that's OK.

What makes a great leader?

A great leader is someone who wants to enable greatness in others. I use this line with my staff all the time: The greatest reward an executive or leader has is to watch those who work for them grow and gain confidence and take on more and more challenges. That's what leadership is about.

Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin

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