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Sifting Tampa Bay companies for signs of economic hope

Searching for signs of economic hope and recovery amid Tampa Bay's corporate chatter is like prospecting for gold. It takes a lot of sifting to find a valuable nugget.

A few corporate nuggets lurk in the recent flurry of earnings reports and analyst chats by area executives who volunteer the occasional insight on the outlook for their companies, industries and this regional economy. Sometimes, the financial performance of a company itself speaks volumes.

Here are five insights gleaned from the folks running area businesses like temporary staffing firm Kforce, energy provider TECO Energy, grocery chain Publix Super Markets, boat retailer MarineMax and the investing firm Raymond James Financial.

1. The economy's getting better, but … : CEO David Dunkel of Kforce, which provides temporary workers to businesses unsure of hiring full-timers, is "pleased" with business as we head into the "second year of a tenuous economic recovery." At Clearwater's MarineMax, a major boat retailer battered by severe declines in sales, CEO Bill McGill sees an "industry (that) appears to be beginning to turn the corner … and is in the early stages of recovery." McGill's chief concerns? Rising fuel costs and falling consumer confidence.

2. There's a change coming in working habits: At Kforce, Dunkel says, more business clients will seek a "more flexible" work force. "We believe temporary staffing penetration of the work force may achieve historic highs in the U.S. in this cycle," Dunkel says. Because many economists recently tempered their GDP expectations for the U.S. economy, he says, flexible staffing allows business "to quickly adjust to this constantly shifting economic environment."

3. Florida's housing mess seems to be clearing up, but so slowly: TECO Energy chief financial officer Sandy Callahan, gloomy a year ago about Florida's troubled housing market, now sees more positive signs. Area home sales are up, and there's even some single-family home construction in a few long-quiet subdivisions. And the unemployment rate in Hillsborough County, the chief service territory for TECO's Tampa Electric utility, recently fell to 10.7 percent. That's lower, finally, than the state jobless rate. TECO, which held its annual shareholders meeting Wednesday, also celebrated another plus: TECO shares just hit a 52-week high.

4. Strong execution and good service work wonders: It's rare when Lakeland's Publix does not deliver a strong performance, even in troubled economic times. First-quarter sales were $6.8 billion, up 4.4 percent from last year's $6.5 billion. And the price of Publix stock (it's not publicly traded but available to employees) just increased from $20.90 to $21.65 per share.

5. In sheer size, what baby boomers do always seems to affect somebody: In this case, it's Raymond James Financial. CEO Paul Reilly says the start of the boomer retirement wave is changing investing patterns. "As people do come back into the equity markets, they may not come back into the same segment of the equity markets that they once were in," Reilly told analysts recently. Dividend-paying stocks will be in; higher-risk investing will decline.

Maybe some of these unearthed nuggets can help explain this strangely changing economy. Just keep your shovel handy.

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

Sifting Tampa Bay companies for signs of economic hope 05/04/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 5, 2011 6:19pm]
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