TAMPA — Last week William "Hoe" Brown, the chairman of the Tampa Port Authority's governing board, got a call from an executive at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. They need a new CEO and wanted a reference for Boyden Global Executive Search. The headhunting firm just helped the Port of Tampa land its new CEO.
"I said 'I'll be happy to tell you about them,' " Brown said. "But I said 'keep your hands off Joe Lopano.' "
Lopano is the CEO of Tampa International Airport, and his name has come up as his old employer, Dallas-Fort Worth, searches for its new chief executive.
He's also part of a new slate of economic leaders that Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn believes can lead the area into a prosperous future.
Assembling that economic dream team was one thing, however. Keeping it will be another matter entirely.
One of the last pieces of that team is Tampa Port Authority CEO Paul Anderson, who took over the port last month. Anderson used to be the Port of Jacksonville's CEO. In a few years his name will undoubtedly be floated when another port needs a new CEO. The same will be true for Lopano, or any of the other economic leaders that Buckhorn is so high on.
"The more success we have, the more attractive these players become to other jurisdictions," Buckhorn said. "Success breeds more success. When other cities see the great things we're doing, they will want to poach some of our talent."
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Who are the bay area's economic game-changers?
• Lopano replaced Louis Miller, who spent 14 years as the airport's CEO before resigning in 2010. Lopano is a specialist in developing new routes, which Tampa International needs to stop bleeding flights to Orlando. He scouted routes at Continental Airlines and developed them at Dallas-Forth Worth.
• Rick Homans is president and CEO of the Tampa-Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. He came to Tampa from New Mexico, where he helped develop the nation's first commercial spaceport and home to several space-related startups. He took over the EDC in 2012, after the group seceded from the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and rebranded itself after being known as the Committee of One Hundred.
• Anderson joined the list this month. He's politically savvy, once served on the Federal Maritime Commission and was the Jacksonville Port Authority's CEO for 22 months. He replaced former Port of Tampa CEO Richard Wainio, who resigned in 2012 after seven years on the job. Wainio is credited with guiding the port through a tough economy but he also seemed mired in a cold war with port businesses.
There are others, like Bob Rohrlack Jr., who became president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce in 2009. He has spent 27 years in economic development. D.T. Minich, the executive director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, Pinellas County's tourism agency, is always name-checked by Hillsborough County leaders for reaching across the bay to develop tourism.
"We've got the A-team here in our community now," Brown said, "and we need to keep our A-team together so they can create the business atmosphere that the Tampa region deserves."
What Buckhorn likes about this group is how well they've worked together. Playing well with others has not always been the bay area's strong suit.
"I think everyone realizes how they fit in the mosaic and what their mission is," he said. "You don't see a lot of folks get into other people's business. Everyone seems to be on the same page."
Lopano said that wasn't the way it was when he first started in Tampa. But now when Lopano goes overseas to pitch a new airline, everyone — the mayor, the chambers of commerce, the tourism officials, the economic development people — go with him.
"They don't just go to have a cocktail or a cup of coffee," Lopano said. "They go with money and commitment, and that gets the attention of the airlines."
Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, a member of the Hillsborough Aviation Authority's governing board, said the new players actually believe in unity — they don't just pay lip service to it.
"We've had institutional leaders with common goals and objectives but not necessarily working together," Crist said. "They said they were, but they weren't."
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Last month Jeff Fegan announced his retirement after 19 years leading Dallas-Forth Worth International. There will be no lack of candidates for the job. Dallas-Fort Worth has five executive vice presidents, so there is no shortage of internal candidates.
But an editorial in the Forth Worth Star-Telegram said the airport should also consider one of its former vice presidents: Lopano.
"I haven't been approached by a recruiter," Lopano said. "But I spent 14 years at DFW, so obviously the newspaper would mention my name. But right now I'm pretty focused on my work here in Tampa and at Tampa International Airport.
Lopano is overseeing completion of the airport's latest master plan, which will guide the airport's expansion and development.
"It's kind of a career-type of job where you can do something for the community that can make a big difference," Lopano said. "I think my role is to provide the platform to grow jobs and to grow the business climate and tourism here in our region.
"The airport really drives a lot of what goes on, and the vision I have for the airport is one that will take us into the next 20 or 30 years."
No one wants to lose Lopano, the mayor said, or what he brings to the table.
"I think he brings enthusiasm," Buckhorn said. "I think he brings a vision for Tampa as a gateway to the Americas. I think he brings a recognition that you need to grow your customer base and grow internationally. I think he's brought in a top-notch staff and the airport is a critical part of our vision for the area."
Crist said the Dallas-Forth Worth rumors are just the beginning. This is something local leaders will have to get used to.
"Right now we have the best players on our team and of course others are going to want them," Crist said.
Buckhorn doesn't believe Lopano is going anywhere right now. But he knows it's inevitable that people will leave.
"Everybody is replaceable," Buckhorn said. "The cemetery is filled with people who thought they were indispensable, mayors included."
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Lopano admitted that DFW's top job was something he thought about during his 14 years there. What if he were asked to put his name in for their CEO job?
"I would not tell you I hadn't thought of (being CEO) when I was at DFW," Lopano said. "Of course I did. I answer my phone like anyone else. If I'm asked to participate in the CEO search, I'll have to make that decision at that time. I'll have to make a decision that's best for my family."
But if Dallas-Fort Worth does come after Lopano, what can Tampa do?
"I think that's premature because no one's offered him anything, and he's said he's not interested," said Steve Burton, the chairman of the aviation authority. "I would hate to use the term 'bidding war' or anything. But I would say that it's up to the board to make sure that we keep him."
But Burton also said that he has always been concerned about Lopano's contract. He has called for a special meeting of the airport board Friday to discuss keeping the CEO.
"It's almost a government contract instead of a good CEO contract," Burton said. "I think if the price were right and people were able to lure him we could lose him.
"I think it's the board's job to do whatever it can to make sure that doesn't happen."
The mayor said offering more money to keep Lopano is off the table.
"I think it's a good contract, it's a generous contract," Buckhorn said "I think that contract was about as generous as one can expect working in a quasi-governmental agency.
"The airport is still accountable to the public, it's accountable to the board members. It's not a private-sector venture. It compensates Joe in a very generous fashion."
Tampa has learned to compensate its new economic leaders. Lopano makes $315,000 annually. Dallas-Fort Worth's retiring CEO makes more than $400,000. Anderson was already Florida's highest-paid port CEO when he was at Jaxport and Tampa made sure he remained that way with a $350,000 annual salary.
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Rewards, though, come in all kinds of forms.
"Money isn't everything," Anderson said. "Happiness in your job is very important. It's what most people spend most of their life doing. If you can create a powerful culture where people like coming to work everyday, that's very powerful."
Crist said Lopano has created just such a culture at the airport. Lopano said he wants to see his work in Tampa, developing new routes and planning for the future, come to fruition.
"I really like Tampa and I love this airport," Lopano said. "I've been embraced by the community. I'd like to finish the job here and finish this master plan, which will be so exciting for the whole region."
Buckhorn said he believes the region has that kind of culture now. More importantly, he said, the area is having a moment that people will want to be a part of.
To him, it's kind of like being a part of a startup.
"There's really not much you can do other than make sure that they realize what a special place this community is," Buckhorn said, "and that any decision to leave Tampa becomes a very difficult one for them despite what the money may be."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3404.