Liz Smith's top priority when she became CEO of Bloomin' Brands was to improve Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba's Italian Grill and other chains under her watch.
Three-plus years later, she's looking beyond the business.
She believes Tampa Bay would be an attractive tech hub a la Raleigh-Durham; she's talking to the CEO Council, Junior Achievement and Academy Prep; she thinks a pedestrian-friendly city would attract younger professionals; she confers frequently with friend and former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio; she shares strategies with fellow local CEO Mindy Grossman of HSN, who sits on Bloomin' Brands board of directors.
The budding relationships have led to "a cross-fertilization of ideas and support," Smith said in an interview with the Times. "It's really important, and we're blessed with having really strong leaders here that I feel I could pick up the phone and talk to."
Smith's emergence speaks to a broader transformation within the local business community: The new guard overseeing Tampa Bay's biggest public companies is coming into its own.
The annual lineup of the Times 10 — the 10 largest public companies headquartered in Tampa Bay — has remained fairly consistent in recent years. This year, the sole newcomers are Bloomin' Brands, which went public last year, and general insurer Brown & Brown.
But taken together, those businesses have had a lot of turnover at the very top. Seven of the 10 CEOs have been on the job four years or less, and two more came to town just a few years before that.
Gone are corporate mainstays Tom James of Raymond James and Steve Raymund at Tech Data, both sons of company founders. Tim Main, CEO of Jabil Circuit for 12 years, left in March, passing the baton to top lieutenant Mark Mondello.
The longest-tenured CEO left among the Times 10 is Chuck Sykes, who took over call center operator Sykes Enterprises from his father, John, in 2004.
James Austin, a longtime Harvard Business School professor and business management expert, said it's not unusual for new CEOs to experience a breaking-in period to focus on their companies, an insular focus all the more intense during hard times like the Great Recession.
But after that, he said, it would be unusual if the new leader didn't "engage significantly" with his or her community.
"Leading companies and their CEOs recognize the importance of meaningful community involvement," Austin said. "Strategic collaborations with nonprofits and governmental entities have become an integral part of intelligent management of successful businesses. Businesses need to generate economic, social and environmental value if they and their communities are to thrive."
Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, said he's noticed "a lot of new faces" in the business community — not just among the biggest public companies but other longtime businesses like coupon distributor Valpak, area banks and the Tampa Port Authority.
That change, he said, can be a very good thing. "It's probably very healthy for any organization or any community to have a shift once in a while," said Steinocher, who took the chamber job two years ago. "It does give a fresh perspective."
Steinocher said it's key during any leadership transformation to make sure the local chambers or business partnerships retain some institutional memory. That's one reason last year's Republican National Convention in Tampa came at a pivotal time, helping to unify many of the relatively new leaders in pitching Tampa Bay.
"The challenge is to make sure you don't go off in different directions" on the big picture, he said. That doesn't mean, however, that the new business leaders don't identify with specific community or economic development goals that mesh with their personal or professional priorities.
Among the local executives and their causes:
• Bloomin' Brands CEO Smith, who joined the Moffitt Cancer Center board of directors last year, is keen on health care initiatives.
• Mondello, Jabil Circuit's new CEO, has been an All Children's Hospital board member for a decade. Recently, he's forged strong bonds to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Tampa Bay Rays.
• Alec Cunningham, WellCare Health Plans CEO since 2010, stresses volunteerism among the insurer's 3,000 local employees. Last year, company volunteers donated about 1,500 hours with nonprofits like Metropolitan Ministries; Paint Your Heart Out, Tampa!; and the American Diabetes Association.
• Grossman, the HSN chief, said she wants to cultivate an environment of creative, passionate people who "always find a way to give back, not only to our local community, but to causes that impact women and families everywhere." Employees recently volunteered more than 500 hours to build the third Habitat for Humanity home in Pinellas County through the HSN Cares program.
A couple of the more seasoned local executives in the Times 10 have been active in the community a long time.
John Ramil, even before he became TECO Energy's CEO in 2010, was already a well-known quantity here, particularly within area chambers and his alma mater, the University of South Florida. His lengthy leadership resume includes being chairman of USF's board of trustees, past chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, and director of both the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.
Chuck Sykes, now the ostensible dean among local CEOs, has been a go-to figure in the business community for everything from studying financing for a new professional baseball stadium to raising money for the American Heart Association. He also had an elongated stint as chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber and is current chairman of the Tampa Bay Partnership.
To Bloomin' Brands' Smith, that breadth of new and old executive talent adds up to an opportunity waiting to be embraced.
"We have some of the finest business leaders around in our back yard," she said.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or [email protected]