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Behind Tampa Bay's dry corporate numbers, drama lurks

Today, let's skip most of the ho-hum quarterly financial numbers recently unveiled by some of the biggest companies operating in the Tampa Bay area. Instead, let's peek at the in-house strategies, serious challenges, ownership changes and legal disputes simmering behind bland balance sheets. What we find might inspire their own reality shows.

Scrapping for lean wallets: Liz Smith is pretty upbeat for a restaurant executive who sees many of her casual dining customers struggling with diminished disposable income. The CEO of Tampa's on-the-upswing Bloomin' Brands was feeling her oats this past week touting the March rollout of a new menu — with "enhanced variety, lightness and affordability," as she describes it — and advertising campaign for the company's Carrabba's Italian Grill chain. She says Bloomin' will miss Carrabba's president of 13 years, Steve Shlemon, who recently left to become CEO of the Japanese steak house chain Benihana. While Outback Steakhouse may be Bloomin' Brands' biggest chain, the company's domestic priority is Bonefish Grill, a smaller seafood chain that just entered the California market and the one Smith sees as the key domestic growth engine for now. Look for a new Bonefish menu by midyear and more weekend lunches.

Distracted Duke? BP had its gulf oil spill nightmare. Now Duke Energy faces quite a spill of its own to clean up. Some 30,000 tons of toxic coal ash were released into the Dan River when a pipe broke under the power company's 27-acre ash pond in a spill discovered on Feb. 2 near the North Carolina border with Virginia. Why do we care in Florida? Because Duke is the dominant electricity provider in west-central Florida. Up in North Carolina, Wake Forest University researchers estimate the Duke spill may involve up to 35 million gallons of coal ash and contaminated wastewater — equal to about 53 Olympic-size swimming pools. That would make it the third-largest coal ash spill in the nation's history. Federal prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation and issued nearly two dozen subpoenas to Duke and state regulators. All that makes for one very big distraction.

The great grocery swap: Florida grocery superstar Publix celebrated its push into North Carolina this past week, opening its first store at a hefty 56,000 square feet in the suburban Charlotte metro area. To help bulk up its presence there, Publix last year bought seven Bi-Lo supermarkets, now being remodeled as Publix stores. By coincidence, the parent company of Bi-Lo and sister chain Winn-Dixie is buying Tampa's Sweetbay Supermarket with plans to convert Sweetbay stores to Winn-Dixie this year.

Tackling card fraud: Tampa's Syniverse does not get a lot of local attention. Once public, it's now a private firm. And it provides global roaming bookkeeping, a technical expertise that may produce yawns to readers but is critical for global mobile communications. But this past week, Syniverse teamed up with MasterCard with a plan to fight credit card fraud — very much in the news these days — by easing the hassle of using cards abroad. The companies are testing an opt-in service that will enable card transactions for users only when they have their mobile device switched on in a specific geo-location abroad. A simple but clever check to confirm the card user and phone owner are actually in the same place.

Sister CEOs: What are the odds the two women CEOs among the major Tampa Bay-based public corporations — HSN's Mindy Grossman and Bloomin' Brands' Liz Smith — would report nearly identical revenues just topping $1 billion for their companies in the fourth quarter of 2013? Not to mention that both companies boast nearly the same market value: just over $3 billion? The two execs belong to a small sorority here of top women executives. But these latest financial similarities are uncanny — and signs of success.

Bayfront now one of many: Only a few years ago, St. Petersburg's Bayfront Hospital was an independent (if financially insecure) medical facility. It was bought by the Health Management Associates hospital chain out of Naples, which in turn was purchased on Jan. 27 by Tennessee-based Community Health Systems. Suddenly the recently regionally rebranded Bayfront Health System is a small actor on a much bigger stage. How big? "We now operate 206 hospitals in 29 states. We have 135,000 employees and 27,000 physicians on our medical staffs," Community Health CEO Wayne T. Smith tells analysts.

Exiting CFOs: The chief financial officers at two major Tampa-based companies are leaving their jobs under differing circumstances. At Wellcare Health Plans, CFO Tom Tran will depart by Nov. 30 or earlier if the company hires his replacement before then. But a Wellcare filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission refers to Tran's exit as a "termination," albeit one that may not happen for nine more months. If Tran does his job to Wellcare's satisfaction until then, he gets $1 million and his termination will be deemed as one "without cause." This is the same Wellcare that in November fired its CEO, Alec Cunningham, vaguely citing a need for more "sophistication" by the departing executive. (A new permanent CEO has yet to be named.) Also on Friday, Tampa's Sykes Enterprises said CFO Michael Kipphut will retire on April 15 after 14 years with the outsourcing company.

Good news, bad news: In mid February, Tampa temporary staffing powerhouse Kforce announced record high revenues for the fourth quarter and a bullish outlook by CEO David Dunkel. "2013 has been a year unlike any I have ever seen in 32 years in the professional staffing industry. Moderate GDP growth rates have resulted in a disproportionate share of job growth coming in the temporary staffing sector," he said. But the following week, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida unsealed a "qui tam" or whistleblower complaint filed by a terminated former employee. Among other things, that complaint alleges Kforce violated the False Claims Act, which typically governs matters of fraud involving government contractors. Kforce says the claim lacks merit and the company will defend itself.

Who says the quarterly financial reporting season is dull?

Robert Trigaux can be reached at rtrigaux@tampabay.com.

Behind Tampa Bay's dry corporate numbers, drama lurks

02/28/14 [Last modified: Friday, February 28, 2014 5:43pm]

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