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Chuck Sykes is overwhelming choice in Times' annual leadership poll

Let's call him King Chuck.

Each January, the St. Petersburg Times asks the Tampa Bay business community to name the top leaders emerging on our economic scene.

In all my years, I've never seen such a lopsided vote for one person. Chuck Sykes, CEO of Tampa's Sykes Enterprises and this year's chair of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, dominated our leadership poll like Tiger Woods once dominated golf.

In 141 telephone interviews last month, Sykes, 47, received 28 votes. That's far more than the typical range of 12 to 16 votes that earns a business leader top status in our annual polls. If those numbers seem low, well, they are. Given the tri-city geography of the Tampa Bay region, many "business leaders" are named each year in the annual surveys, but only a handful draw more than a few votes apiece from across the whole metro area.

Getting 28 is impressive. But it may also signal our paucity of leadership bench strength. Sykes stands out, yes, but that's happening in part because fewer folks may be stepping up to lead.

Here's one other theory I'll toss out: Finding fresh leaders coming out of 2009 — a wretched year of recession, traumatic job loss and bankruptcies for many businesses — may simply be hard to do. Many business execs still are busy trying to keep their own shops afloat.

Who else registered in our survey as emerging business leaders? Paul Reilly, 55, the heir apparent at Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg who formally becomes CEO on May 1, came in at No. 2 with 11 votes. And a trio of business executives, each with five votes, followed Reilly. They are:

• Tom James, 67: The 40-year chief at Raymond James is a perennial heavyweight in these business leader surveys. His CEO spot will be assumed by Reilly in a little more than two months. Rest assured that James will still remain super involved in Tampa Bay business (and arts) affairs.

• University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft, 62: The sole woman among top votegetters, she has maintained a steady leadership status in these surveys in recent years. It's a testament to her focus on regional economic development by the state university (sometimes to the chagrin of her more academic critics), and because USF consistently flexes its muscles as a powerful economic engine here.

• Ed Turanchik, 54: The ex-Hills­borough County commissioner keeps reinventing himself as a promoter of progressive causes. Now it is high-speed rail. His Web site — www.fastrailconnectus.com — was officially launched in August to rally public support for Florida's application to the federal government for $2.6 billion in high-speed rail funding. (Florida got $1.25 billion of that sum.) Now there's even some buzz that Turanchik should be considered a candidate for Tampa's mayor.

More than 50 other area people were suggested as leaders in the annual survey but earned only one, or sometimes two, votes. This survey's winners, as is increasingly the case, are Tampa-centric with an occasional player from St. Petersburg and fewer from Clearwater.

Sykes has a full plate. In addition to running a global business of call centers at Sykes Enterprises, he chairs the Tampa Chamber and is in line to head the Tampa Bay Partnership, the regional economic development group. He has led the charge lately to seek World Cup FIFA soccer games to be played in Tampa, and was a member of the ABC coalition business group that recently recommended potential sites for a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium. And he is active in the Second Harvest food bank program.

At the Tampa chamber, Sykes is trying to establish a more focused and disciplined organization by working on a strategic plan, setting the group's goals three years ahead.

It sounds a bit bureaucratic, but chamber president Bob Rohrlack insists this is the type of core restructuring that's needed this year. He praises Sykes for his ability to articulate a strategy and win the support of people.

Rohrlack recalls preparing for the chamber's annual event late last year when Sykes would introduce himself as the new chairman to the larger membership. Sykes had five long pages of bullet points, recalls Rohrlack, who saw the list and worried the lunch would stretch until dinner.

"He delivered his whole message, never once looking down," Rohrlack said. "And he got ridiculous buy-in."

One player with clout who fell off the survey list is Jeff Lyash. The former CEO of Progress Energy Florida was promoted to the power company's headquarters in Raleigh, N.C., yet remains involved in certain business community efforts here. But area business executives polled have mentally written him off the list of "Tampa Bay" leaders.

It is an unfortunate loss in a metro area arguably starved for business executives willing to take charge — especially with Tom James about to step down as Raymond James CEO.

Will Reilly, James' successor, step up and offer his own skills and the Raymond James clout to the broader business community? Will Vince Dolan, Lyash's successor as CEO of Progress Energy Florida, deliver as a business leader as forcefully as Lyash did?

In both cases, the new execs have very tough acts to follow.

In the meantime, congratulations to Chuck Sykes for regally commanding so many survey votes this year. It's a big endorsement. But it also sets the bar high to meet such leadership expectations.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Chuck Sykes is overwhelming choice in Times' annual leadership poll 02/20/10 [Last modified: Monday, February 22, 2010 8:21am]
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