Who do you see emerging as the Tampa Bay area's top business leaders?
The latest annual business leaders survey conducted by the St. Petersburg Times shows Chuck Sykes once again garnered far more votes to this question than anyone else. I can only come to three conclusions:
1. Chuck Sykes, who runs Tampa's Sykes Enterprises from the round "Beer Can" building in downtown Tampa, is now the unstoppable Chuck Norris of area business leadership. And that makes Sykes worthy of the same kind of corny invincibility jokes that until now were inspired solely by Norris:
Chuck Sykes doesn't lift just any beer can to quench his thirst; he lifts the entire Beer Can building. … When other business leaders received votes in this survey, they personally demanded we change them to votes for Chuck Sykes.
2. The severe recession forced so many area executives to focus on rebuilding their own businesses, few others paid much attention to Tampa Bay's bigger economic picture.
3. We're suffering a regional dearth of true business leadership.
Frankly, all three conclusions hold an element of truth. Sykes, 48, has enjoyed a high profile, chairing a second year term at the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. He's also prominent in other economic development groups and sports support and planning groups ranging from FIFA soccer to the Tampa Bay Rays.
It's also a family tradition. A dozen years ago, Sykes' father, John Sykes, was counted among our top business leaders.
Past Times surveys on occasion revealed thin leadership ranks here. Real estate and construction industry leaders used to be prominent, but that bench, not surprisingly, has lost its depth. Bankers here also used to be major players. Now Tampa Bay's financial scene is awash in city presidents reporting to regional managers reporting to state execs reporting to out-of-state headquarters staff. The clout is pretty much gone.
Now, just as the Tampa Bay region seems to be approaching a tipping point in size and economic seriousness, we are again at risk of a diminished pipeline of truly regional business leadership to take this metro area to the next level.
That, at least, is one perspective gleaned from this year's Times survey and a look back at more than a decade of our annual surveys on emerging area leaders.
You have to wonder. Did the recent failures of two major public transportation initiatives backed by the general business community — Hillsborough County voters in November rejected a county mass-transit tax, and the governor turned down federal funds committed to a Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail line — happen in part because business leadership was unconvincing?
I see boatloads of talent. Somehow, we need more business execs from a broader swath of our economy to step up and lead. Vigorously. It's never easy to rally greater Tampa Bay to greater things in good times, much less when our economy struggles.
In the Times survey, newly anointed Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn came in a distant second behind Sykes. After Buckhorn came University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft, who in turn was closely followed by a tie in voting between two Raymond James Financial executives. A perennial heavyweight in these annual surveys, Raymond James chairman and former chief executive Tom James, and his recent successor as company CEO, Paul Reilly, were both cited equally in the voting.
After that, the voting dips. TECO Energy CEO John Ramil, who six years ago was a top vote-getter, got just a handful of leadership votes this time around. After him, the voting gets spread very thin.
In the Times' 2010 survey, Sykes dominated the leadership votes even more than this year. In 2010, Sykes was again followed by, in order, Reilly, James and Genshaft.
Those names, while precious to a thankful business community, are getting all too familiar, folks. They need fresh company. They need reinforcements.
You can argue that dozens, even hundreds of business executives are "leaders" in some slice of our community, city, cause, school or philanthropic effort. And that's great. Keep it up.
But what we also need are a few more folks who can help command the region as a whole. That takes influence, smarts, commitment, persistence, a track record of success, vision … well, real leadership.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.